Lawmakers and authorities call for change after early-release crime spike

HONOLULU (KHON2) — A spike in crimes committed by inmates released due to COVID precautions has prosecutors calling for an end to the practice of early release.

Even some defense attorneys agree the rushed releases put many inmates on the street without a plan. Though court reviews are now complete, hundreds more are up for early parole. There are still no positive COVID test results at any correctional facility.

The Hawaii Supreme Court ordered case reviews starting in March of more than 1,000 incarcerated people to try to relieve overcrowding in case the COVID virus took hold in any jail or prison.

Many pretrial detainees were released on their own recognizance. Dan Foley, the retired judge and special master appointed to oversee the plan, explained the others to a state House committee this week: “You have the sentenced felony probationers, they’re monitored by the probation department, sentenced felons on parole are monitored by the paroling authority.”

All told, about 700 people have been set free so far, but many of them are committing new crimes or violations. Honolulu’s police department and prosecutor have tallied 45 already.

“When they pick up their offense, the new charge is like a robbery in the second degree, or a burglary in the first degree or something like that,” said Acting Honolulu Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto. “These people have committed violent offenses.”

On Sunday four more were caught together in a stolen vehicle in Mililani, all of them part of the COVID release program.

“Quite frankly we’re not surprised at this,” Nadamoto said. “You know, when they were released they were given practically no terms and conditions of release. They have no place to go, they have no food to eat, no shelter, so we’re not surprised they’re reoffending.”

That’s a point on which some defense attorneys even agree.

“I am of the opinion that no one should be incarcerated longer than necessary, and I’m happy to see the government is open to solutions like this, but maybe there is a better way to go about it,” said Dave Hendrickson, at attorney with the Law Office of Viktor Bakke. “In this case, it’s like, ‘Well, we want to release you into the public with no plan,’ so I don’t know if t that’s going to be any safer than keeping them incarcerated.”

Foley pointed out that the overall headcount reduction behind bars so far is more than 800, because fewer new cases are coming in right now.

“Part of the reduction of population has to do with bench warrants not being served for low-level offenders that are not deemed public safety risks,” Foley said, also “charges not being filed by prosecutors for low-level offenders not considered public safety risks, and no-cash bail release on their own recognizance.”

“We are charging people,” Nadamoto said. “If somebody commits a violent offense, we are going to charge them. We’re not going to have somebody arrested and immediately put in to OCCC if they’re not a violent type major crime. But that does not mean we’re not going to charge them, we’re just going to wait until more investigation is done, gather more evidence and then charge them.”

Foley was told this week that everything from retail and home burglaries to the strain on social services due to the early releases are taking a toll on the public.

“I know that the Supreme Court wants to depopulate the jails,” said Rep. Scott Saiki, House speaker, “but it has to remember that basically what it has done in effect is shifted the financial burden primarily from the public safety system to local governments, service providers and the public sector. This was rushed, and now the burden has fallen on all of these other sectors to pick up the pieces.”

But there’s more to come. Now the Hawaii Paroling Authority has a backlog of all March and April hearings, plus a separate mandate to look at early release for about 500 more.

“They’re beginning to review inmates who are short-termers with 6 months or a year left in their sentences,” Foley said, “and those who are very sick or elderly, those who are targeted by the Supreme Court order. This is not a rushed process and I think is a little more deliberate in that everyone being reviewed by the Hawaii Paroling Authority has been sentenced by them and has a case management workup.”

“HPA initially reviewed approximately 955 case of which a little over 500 cases were deemed to fit the criteria for possible action,” the Department of Public Safety said in a statement. “The reviews have now been completed pursuant to the Hawaii Supreme Court’s initial order… and some cases may be included in the May and June 2020 hearing calendars. Other cases were addressed administratively by the HPA.”

The early release programs are not resting well with prosecutors who say they should be called off.

“There has been a flatlining of COVID in Hawaii, so let’s just stop this already,” Nadamoto said. “We’re asking to take a deep breath and reassess the situation and have this knee-jerk release of all of the prisoners stop.”

We’ll continue to track the status of jail releases, new charges, and upcoming paroles, and how much longer the special COVID rules can apply.