Who’s on furlough? New decision favors public’s right to know

Oahu Community Correctional Center

The public has a right to know which inmates are on furlough at any given time.

It’s a right KHON2’s Always Investigating has been fighting for for years, and now a ruling has been made in the public’s favor.

You may think hundreds of Hawaii’s prisoners are serving time behind bars, but they’re actually often out and about on a daily basis, whether they’re working or looking for work.

They are supposed to be back behind bars again each night, but all too often the day ends differently — with them unaccounted for or worse out committing new crimes, like in April 2015, when two inmates on furlough pretended to be police officers and tied up four people in a Makiki home.

In 2013, Always Investigating turned to the state Office of Information Practices (OIP), the state’s public records watchdog entity, and filed a case after the Department of Public Safety (PSD) shut down our repeated requests to know which convicts are out on work release and community programs.

At the time, officials said they would not disclose the work furlough list without a clear security concern to the public.

“We don’t see the benefit in that, in where we notify the public. Inmates going out on work furlough are trying to establish their lives. A lot of them want to remain low key and change the way they actually lived their lives in the past,” Max Otani, who was deputy director of corrections at the time, told us in 2014.

But others, whether past victims or law enforcement and prosecutors, had concerns about the rates of escape and crimes being committed while out.

On Tuesday, years after our initial filing and back-and-forth, submitting additional points and requests for review, the OIP instructed public safety to release the list. Its legal team ruled:

“As OIP’s formal opinions are considered precedent, and because PSD has not met its burden to justify nondisclosure of the requested lists containing information about an inmate’s status in the correctional system, OIP now determines that PSD must disclose lists of inmates in furlough or community custody subject to the limitations set forth herein. OIP recognizes that there could be specific inmates for whom PSD has heightened security concerns, and their names may be segregated from such lists prior to disclosure.

“OIP further finds that PSD’s policies are not confidentiality statutes and do not protect an inmate’s furlough or community custody status from public disclosure.

“Finally, OIP finds that no significant privacy interests would be implicated by disclosure of a list of inmates in or awaiting placement in furlough or community custody. Inmates’ minimal privacy interests, when balanced against the public interest in disclosure, do not warrant withholding the lists from public access. Thus, the UIPA exception to disclosure for records, which, if disclosed, would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, is not applicable here.”

View the full decision here.

Honolulu’s prosecuting attorney agrees. In a statement, Keith Kaneshiro said, “This is a good decision. The public has a right to know.”

Upon receiving OIP’s memo, Always Investigating asked PSD to hand over its list of inmates currently on furlough, community custody, and approved for but awaiting placement. We’re told the department is still reviewing the decision.

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