Guzman: Legal system returning to normal
MCCC population trimmed 41 percent during COVID-19
Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman said office operations will begin to return to normal, after a state Supreme Court order last week ending oversight over inmate releases due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“We can go back to the normal course,” Guzman said Wednesday. “We still have to transition at the same pace as the courts. They are gradually reopening.”
In March, when concerns emerged about the spread of COVID-19, state courthouses were closed except for essential business, in-person appearances were limited and court dates were rescheduled.
Office of the Public Defender petitions, filed in late March, called for the release of inmates from state correctional facilities to try to prevent the coronavirus spread. In response, the court appointed retired Judge Daniel Foley as special master to work collaboratively with the state Department of the Attorney General, prosecutors, the public defender’s office and Department of Public Safety to lower jail populations statewide.
Reductions occurred as a result of police departments not issuing certain bench warrants, prosecutors not filing new charges for less serious offenses and not requiring bail for some people charged with crimes, according to a report from Foley.
Some nonviolent inmates were released through agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys or by judges’ decisions to reduce or temporarily suspend jail sentences.
At the Maui Community Correctional Center, the inmate population decreased from 450 on March 2 to 264 in late May, Guzman said, for a 41 percent decrease.
He estimated that 78 to 100 inmates were released as part of the effort ordered by the Supreme Court. Others finished serving their sentenced to be released.
The Wailuku jail population was below its operational capacity of 301 but above its design capacity of 209.
Guzman said the prosecutor’s office couldn’t agree to releasing another 55 inmates to reach the point of design capacity at the jail.
“That means releasing some of the most hardened criminals into the community,” he said.
In a June 5 order, the Supreme Court concluded proceedings in the consolidated public defender petitions.
“Much of the urgent relief requested in the two petitions has been addressed,” the court order said.
With the proceeding ended, Guzman said the prosecutor’s office would no longer be asking police to implement certain pandemic-related measures, such as issuing citations instead of making arrests for misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor crimes and violations.
“Therefore, returning released inmates to custody in an orderly fashion, charging defendants at a measured pace, and other proceedings should resume as able under current court conditions,” Guzman said.
He said inmates whose sentences were suspended were given dates to return to court so their return to jail to serve the remainder of their sentences could be staggered.
“Thank you to all agencies for their participation and cooperation in the effort to prevent the virus from entering correctional facilities while preserving the safety of our communities,” Guzman said.
He said the public could participate and provide opinions about setting population capacities in correctional facilities through the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission. Its website is ag.hawaii.gov/hawaii-correctional-systems-oversight-commission.
In an order last month, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said grand jury proceedings could resume this month. His order delayed jury trials until after June 30.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.