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Defendants awaiting trial will not be released due to COVID-19, Hawaiʻi Supreme Court rules

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Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm hailed a Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruling Tuesday to deny a motion that could have allowed the automatic release of some defendants awaiting trial.

The State Office of the Public Defender had filed a request to curtail the ability of trial judges to set bail for some defendants, or to keep them in custody while awaiting trial, citing the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

But Alm and other county prosecutors as well as the attorney general argued that vaccines and testing have reduced the risk to prison populations. They said public safety would be compromised by the release of defendants.

The court has twice before issued orders prompting the release of some nonviolent offenders.

The state reported that, as of Tuesday, there were 39 inmates and 12 public safety employees with active COVID-19 cases. In late August, with Delta variant cases cresting, the count was over 300.

A U.S. judge gave preliminary approval in September to a settlement in a separate lawsuit by Hawaiʻi inmates who alleged state officials mishandled the pandemic and failed to protect them from COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails.

The settlement established a five-person panel to oversee public health in correctional facilities and other measures to improve sanitation, hygiene and medical monitoring.

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