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A teaspoon of mini-missives. A cup of sound bites. And a gallon of platitudes.
That’s the deconstructed meal the two candidates for Honolulu city prosecutor — Keith Kaneshiro and Kevin Takata — served up in their responses to 10 questions from Civil Beat on why they are seeking election Nov. 6.
We asked them broad stuff, like how they define justice, and demanded specifics, like naming two areas where the office falls short.
Let’s dig into the juicy parts first. Then we’ll wash it down with the verbatim Q&A, hopefully leaving you maybe not satisfied but hopefully a more informed voter.
The high turnover rate in the prosecutor’s office — a few dozen deputies within two years — has been a hot issue. Civil Beat asked each candidate what they would do to address it.
Kaneshiro said he needed to do some house cleaning when he took over in 2010. He added that turnover is a natural function of the office, which he views as providing a training ground for young lawyers to gain trial experience.
“If you are referring to my opponent’s claim that I drove off experienced deputies, I’ll just say that when I took over I saw that there needed to be a change in culture, beginning with accountability.
“Some deputies didn’t like that. A number of them left,” Kaneshiro said. “I don’t apologize for demanding more. Deputies making $70,000 to $90,000 a year have to earn those taxpayer dollars.”
Takata said he’d start by treating people with respect and not asking them to do unethical things, noting some prosecutors left because they were told not to provide evidence to the defense that the defense is entitled to.
“The incumbent has denied doing this but admitted to a reporter that he told two prosecutors not to provide inconsistent statements from a victim to the defense,” he said. “Ethical rules require prosecutors to provide to the defense all evidence that ‘tends to negate guilt.’ In determining guilt, a witness’ credibility is often critical. Inconsistent statements by a witness directly affect that person’s credibility.”
Kaneshiro said Takata’s campaign has been a “grudge-driven personal attack against me.” Kaneshiro fired Takata and 10 others upon taking office.
“My opponent has yet to articulate any vision for the office or offer details about specific programs he would introduce,” Kaneshiro said.
Takata, who has been working for the Hawaii Attorney General since 2010, said he wants to get back to the the prosecutor’s office so he can rebuild it.
“I am a prosecutor running for office,” he said. “The incumbent is a political insider running an office.”
Here’s how the candidates tackled each question we asked. Their responses are unedited.
Kevin Takata: Human sex trafficking is underreported and therefore the scope of the problem is not well defined. Public education and awareness of this crime must be increased to combat it. Victims should be protected to encourage them to come forward to report the crime and testify. Investigators must be properly trained to learn how human trafficking is conducted, and how to make a case that will stand up in court. Presently, a national survey is being conducted by the National Criminal Justice Training Center’s AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program to determine the training needs of investigators. The survey is an indication that until investigators are properly trained, human sex trafficking will not be effectively investigated and prosecuted.
Keith Kaneshiro: It is difficult for the prosecutor’s office to answer conclusively. We know it is taking place. We hear the stories. We have met with victim advocates and human rights coalitions. But the reality is that only one case has been brought to us for prosecution in the last year. I have worked with the Legislature to ensure that the targets of law enforcement are those who profit from trafficking, not the victims. We passed a law that makes promotion of prostitution in the first degree a Class A felony punishable by 20 years in prison. That law is aimed at pimps, but we also upgraded the penalties for johns who are repeat offenders. Most important, we are now able to grant immunity and state witness protection to victims who are willing to testify. But we need to find ways to convince them to come forward. I recently attended the 808HALT Rescue & Restore Victims of Human Trafficking Regional Program, where that issue was one of the discussion points.
KT: Presently, the Prosecutor’s Office is being mismanaged and its relationship with other agencies has suffered. The present administration has lost sight that the primary responsibility of the Prosecutor is to seek justice and ensure public safety. First, the elected Prosecutor must lead with integrity and professionalism. The Prosecutor represents the people and the people should expect, and demand, only the highest ethical and professional behavior from the Office. Second, in the criminal justice system, the Prosecutor’s Office is the middle cog between police and the courts. Unless the Office is working with, and not against, these other agencies, the criminal justice system will not work efficiently. This is not happening because decisions are now based on politics.
KK: There is one major problem and that is the office’s outdated case management system. The previous administration created a case management system with coding that was written in-house and which lacked a built-in reporting mechanism. The source code for the system was not made available to my administration when we took over. I don’t know why it wasn’t made available or what became of it. But without the source code or a built-in reporting mechanism, each time information is requested, a custom script has to be written to extract the data. This is a tremendous waste of time. Thankfully, the City Council has appropriated money for a new case management system and my office is currently meeting with several vendors.
KT: I have CONTINUOUSLY prosecuted crimes for over 25 years and have won the most homicide convictions in Hawaii. For 10 years, I supervised the largest division in the Prosecutor’s Office without creating the backlog of cases at court that exist now. I train prosecutors across America and internationally. I was the Commander of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force that investigates and prosecutes those that prey on Hawaii’s children. The Hawaii Supreme Court has appointed me to several important committees. I am a prosecutor running for office. The incumbent is a political insider running an office.
KK: My experience as an administrator, my knowledge of the legislative process and my vision for the office. While taking cases to trial is a core function of the office, I believe the prosecuting attorney can and should do much more to ensure public safety. The prosecuting attorney needs to be an advocate for victims’ rights. That’s why I introduced the courthouse dog program for child victims. And that’s why I’m working hard to open the Honolulu Family Justice Center, which will offer long-term transitional housing for victims of domestic violence. This will help them truly break away from their abusers and the cycle of violence, attain an education or job skills, regain their self-esteem and make new lives for themselves. The prosecutor also needs to be a voice for the community in matters involving public safety. I went to the Legislature to express my concern when I learned that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative proposed to release inmates without adding more parole officers or programs. At the outset, I was the only person speaking in opposition. But I am happy to say that legislators listened and incorporated several of my suggestions into the final bill, the most important being funding to put support programs in place before releasing inmates. My opponent has yet to articulate any vision for the office or offer details about specific programs he would introduce. Instead, his campaign has been a grudge-driven personal attack against me.
KT: To retain and attract dedicated, skilled career prosecutors. The loss of over 50 prosecutors in less than 2 years since the incumbent took office has jeopardized our safety. Under the incumbent, prosecutors are losing 50 percent of the domestic violence abuse cases.
KK: Continuing to focus on the priorities I identified when I took office: Drug abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, sex assault, cybercrimes and animal cruelty. And to continue advocating for victims’ rights and speaking out on issues of public safety.
KT: In deciding what cases to prosecute, the ethnic heritage of a defendant should not be a consideration. That said, the Weed & Seed program that helped root out crime from communities and replace it with programs and opportunities to help reduce crime has not been given the resources and attention it should. Also, HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement), an award winning program created by Judge Steven Alm, should be supported. HOPE places at risk defendants on very strict probation supervision as an alternative to incarceration. It has reduced recidivism and has been so successful that other states and countries have either created their own programs based on HOPE or are looking to do so.
KK: My office is one of nine representatives on the Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force that was created to study this issue. The task force has conducted summits at the state Capitol, held community meetings on the Neighbor Islands and also met with inmates. It hopes to present its findings and recommendations in a report to the Legislature before the end of the year.
KT: The strength and integrity of our criminal justice system depends on the faith and trust people have in it. Faith and trust are enhanced when decisions and actions are explained to the public. For example, when a plea agreement is made in a high publicity case, the decision should be explained. On the other hand, the Prosecutor is not at liberty to discuss ongoing investigations because it may compromise those investigations, nor should the Prosecutor speak about cases pending trial because to do so would jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
KK: The prosecutor’s office is bound by the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct. Generally, that means we are prohibited from commenting publicly on investigations or pending trials so as not to prejudice a case in any way. In this regard, we always proceed with what lawyers call an abundance of caution. We prefer to do our talking in the courtroom, where whatever goes on record is available to the public. Information about a case will be disclosed during a public trial. When we can, we have always been willing to work with media to accommodate requests for information.
KT: The Legislature has determined that Hawaii citizens have the right to possess and use marijuana for medicinal purposes. A Prosecutor is sworn to uphold the law, and that law will not be treated any differently.
KK: I don’t disagree with the concept of relief for seriously ill patients, but I think the medical marijuana act is open to abuse. Right now, approved conditions such as chronic pain can apply to almost anything.
KT: The recently enacted Justice Reinvestment Initiative is intended to address the overcrowding problem. The Prosecutor is responsible for public safety and whether there is room in prison for dangerous criminals should not be a consideration in handling cases. Mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment are an essential tool in a prosecutor’s arsenal to ensure that the public is protected from dangerous defendants and career criminals. If the mandatory minimum is unjust based on the facts and circumstances of a particular case, the Prosecutor has the flexibility and responsibility to fashion a just sentence.
KK: Ultimately, a new prison needs to be built. When I was director of public safety, I made the decision to send a number of inmates to the mainland because of overcrowding. It was supposed to be a temporary move, maybe three years, until a new facility could be built here. But the decision to build kept getting deferred and now we have come full circle, with the state wanting to bring inmates home but with no place to put them. We also need to build on programs like Drug Court that help keep youthful or first-time offenders out of the criminal justice system. I think more alternative schools would also help youth who are not responding to traditional schooling.
KT: I would treat people with dignity and respect and not ask them to do unethical things. Some prosecutors have left because they were told not to provide evidence to the defense that the defense is entitled to. The incumbent has denied doing this but admitted to a reporter that he told 2 prosecutors not to provide inconsistent statements from a victim to the defense. Ethical rules require prosecutors to provide to the defense all evidence that ‘tends to negate guilt’. In determining guilt, a witness’ credibility is often critical. Inconsistent statements by a witness directly affect that person’s credibility.
KK: The prosecutor’s office has always been a place where young lawyers go to gain trial experience before moving on. So regular staff turnover is something of the norm. If you are referring to my opponent’s claim that I drove off experienced deputies, I’ll just say that when I took over I saw that there needed to be a change in culture, beginning with accountability. Some deputies didn’t like that. A number of them left. I don’t apologize for demanding more. Deputies making $70,000 to $90,000 a year have to earn those taxpayer dollars. I also refuse to make this about those who quit. I’m proudest of the deputies who stayed and the new lawyers we brought aboard. They are smart, hardworking and dedicated. Being a prosecutor is a calling. It is definitely not for everybody. You give victims their day in court. You seek justice for them. That’s a huge responsibility. You don’t always get credit when you win, you always get blamed when you lose. The deputies who are doing this every day are special. They truly care about helping victims, punishing criminals and making Honolulu a safer place to live.
KT: This is a difficult question that philosophers have wrestled with for ages. For a Prosecutor, “justice” must be more than an abstract notion and should be the desired result in every case based on the facts, the law, and the equities. In determining whether justice was served, a Prosecutor must be willing to listen to victims.
KK: Justice is doing what is right and what is fair. For a prosecutor, that means filing charges based on evidence, not emotion or expediency. Sometimes, as was the case earlier this year in two stabbings that resulted in deaths, it means that we decline charges because of the circumstances. If you stay true to these principals, justice will be served.