Prosecutors on deadline to review jail releases
Some MCCC inmates eligible for release amid pandemic
Maui County Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman said deputies are reviewing a list of Maui Community Correctional Center inmates eligible for release because of the COVID-19 crisis, while facing a deadline today to file objections to individual releases.
“My deputies are frantically working and reviewing each of the inmates on that list,” Guzman said Tuesday afternoon. “We are the last protective barrier for the community, the only voice they have in this time-sensitive situation. Otherwise, inmates will be released into our communities.”
The state Department of Public Safety provided the inmate list as part of a Hawaii Supreme Court order to release inmates in certain categories from jails on Maui, Hawaii island and Kauai in response to a petition filed by the Public Defender’s Office amid the COVID-19 crisis.
While the majority of COVID-19 cases in correctional facilities have involved inmates and staff at Oahu Community Correctional Center, the order said action was required to reduce inmate populations at jails on the Neighbor Islands.
Because of overcrowding and the pandemic, “they have the potential to not only place the inmates at risk of death or serious illness, but also endanger the lives and well-being of staff and service providers who work there, their families and members of the community at large,” the order said.
As of Aug. 17, the Wailuku jail housed 313 inmates, above its design capacity of 209 and operational capacity of 301, according to the Department of Public Safety.
The order calls for the release by today of inmates awaiting trial for misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor crimes, except those charged with abuse, violation of a restraining order or order for protection or other family court crimes. The inmates are to appear in Wailuku District Court on Dec. 1, with attorneys allowed to appear for Molokai and Lanai defendants.
For such inmates who have been sentenced for misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor offenses, the order calls for temporary suspension of jail terms.
For some felony defendants who are awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to jail terms as part of probation, the court set an “expedited process” that includes the presumption that motions have been filed for release.
Excluded from possible release are defendants charged with or sentenced for murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, assault, kidnapping, terroristic threatening, sexual assault, burglary, robbery, abuse and first- or second-degree unauthorized entry into a dwelling.
The Supreme Court order, issued Monday afternoon, set a deadline of 4 p.m. today for prosecutors to file memorandums opposing individual releases.
“We are given less than 48 hours to screen and file objections to the release of inmates,” Guzman said.
He said that differs from a Supreme Court order in April, in response to another public defender petition, that involved inmates filing motions for release and court hearings with prosecutors objecting or agreeing to release.
“It appears that this Supreme Court order not only has a presumption of release for those inmates that meet the criteria, it allows them to have a presumption that they filed a motion for release even though they did not actually do so,” Guzman said. “Since this is such a fast-paced process, it’s almost like a blanket approval.
“All of this is going to get done in one fell swoop.”
In determining whether to object to releases, Guzman said deputies are reviewing whether inmates pose a significant risk to the safety of the public, as well as their criminal history and history of compliance with court orders, probation or parole.
“A balanced approach to the health of inmates and safety of our community must be considered,” Guzman said. “If there are inmates on the list that we are not sure about, we will err on the side of caution to protect our community and file memos in opposition.
“I feel uncomfortable with this system because of the fact that there is no hearing on the matter.”
The order calls for judges to review the matters without hearings, although they may “in extraordinary circumstances, set an expedited telephonic or video hearing.”
“The courts may deny release of an eligible inmate if release would pose a significant risk to the safety of the inmate or the public,” the order says.
The order says inmates will be released only if they haven’t had a positive COVID-19 test result and will be required to provide contact information and self-isolate for 14 days.
Guzman said he was concerned that the order doesn’t require inmates to be tested for COVID-19 before being released. He noted that no COVID-19 positive tests have been reported at the Maui Community Correctional Center.
While only random testing has been done based on symptoms at the jail, “we have the capability of testing them quickly now,” Guzman said.
He also questioned whether newly arrested defendants would be released under the same guidelines in the order.
“Is this just a revolving process where we’re arresting them, bringing them to court?” Guzman said. “If they meet the criteria set forth in the order, are they going to be presumed to have filed their motion and we have to immediately check out their background?
“The onus is all on us, which I feel is quite unfair. These are just really difficult and challenging times.”
He said the prosecutor’s office victim-witness counselors will be informing victims if inmates are released.
Inmates on the list for possible release include Victoria Satoafaiga, who was sentenced in January to a one-year jail term for second-degree custodial interference and fourth-degree sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl in 2017. At the time, Satoafaiga was a Boys & Girls Clubs employee and the victim attended the agency’s Central Maui clubhouse.
Another inmate who could be released is Thomas Schillaci, who is awaiting sentencing on drug charges after police reported seizing methamphetamine in a search of his Kihei residence in 2018.
At the time, Schillaci was on probation in a July 2014 case when police reported finding nearly 2 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, other drugs, a loaded gun and cash in a search of his residence. His prior criminal record includes a conviction for manslaughter in the June 3, 1996, shooting in Olinda of William “Billy” Simpson Jr.
Pretrial inmates eligible for release include Dean Line Jr., who was arrested for allegedly trying to steal a tire off a parked rental car near Kahului Airport; Chase Mocium, who is charged with stealing more than $100,000 in jewelry from a closed Paia store; and Sixer Sonis, charged with habitually operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.