Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
1. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your office? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue is restoring public trust in the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney. People must have faith their prosecutor is leading with honesty and integrity.
As prosecuting attorney, I will continue the work I have already begun to mend public perception of the office. I will continue to be transparent and accessible to community members with concerns. I will promote a culture of honesty and high ethical standards. I will hold my deputies accountable. I will openly and honestly advocate for public safety and victims of crime.
Promoting public safety is a prosecutor’s primary function. I will not pander to those who commit crimes. I will leave that to defense attorneys and judges soft on crime.
My administration will continue to earn the public’s trust by putting victims first. We will listen to victims. We will continue to solidify our strong relationship with police and other law enforcement. We will fight to shut the revolving door that sets dangerous offenders free again and again. We will oppose initiatives like the COVID-19 release program that put so many violent people back on our streets.
We will strengthen our bond with the public through truth and justice.
2. The Honolulu prosecuting attorney’s office has been the subject of a federal corruption probe. What would you do to restore public confidence in the office?
I applaud federal law enforcement for investigating the office. There is nothing more important to me than the integrity of the office.
After being named acting prosecuting attorney I met with federal prosecutors and was more than willing to provide them with information that may have moved their exhaustive investigation closer to a conclusion.
I directed a review of Katherine Kealoha’s cases looking for irregularities. We referred some of her cases to the Attorney General’s office. While I am confident my office could diligently and effectively prosecute those cases, I am acutely aware even the slightest appearance of impropriety or conflict, real or perceived, must be avoided.
I have instituted new internal safeguards. They are designed to provide accountability, oversight and prevent anything that could be considered inappropriate.
At least two deputy prosecutors must sign off on plea agreements and dismissals. This multi-tiered process is an effort to assure proper oversight.
I have encouraged all employees to report anything they deem suspicious or unethical. I have created a hotline and anonymous “suggestion boxes” where employees are asked to report questionable behavior.
Recently installed encryption software tracks emails and computer use, and guards against sensitive information being sent to the wrong people.
3. Because of COVID-19, many of Hawaii’s inmates were released so as to reduce the risk of infection. Where do you stand on this issue?
I led the fight against the premature release of lawfully convicted felons, misdemeanants and pre-trial detainees. I fought the Public Defender’s request for wholesale release due to COVID-19. I successfully argued for case-by-case consideration.
My strong opposition to the COVID release program was documented by print and broadcast news. To ensure public safety I asked that prior to release, inmates:
• Be screened for COVID-19.
• Have a verified place to reside once set free.
• Be given a specific date to return to finish their lawful sentence or stand trial.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not require these conditions. Inmates with no place to go were turned loose on the street. They committed new crimes including robbery, burglary, motor vehicle theft, drunken driving and even carjacking.
Under my direction the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney filed hundreds of motions with the court opposing inmate releases. Despite this, too many were set free, including 144 from the failed HOPE Probation program. More than a quarter of those released were rearrested for new crimes or for violating conditions of their release.
The criminal justice system failed. As a result, more innocent people fell victim to crime.
4. The recent police killings of black people in police custody have caused widespread racial unrest throughout the country. What would you do to strengthen police accountability in Hawaii, including the role the prosecutor’s office plays in police use-of-force cases?
The prosecuting attorney has an obligation to assure everyone is safe, even from the misconduct of police officers. They, like us, are not above the law nor are they entitled to special treatment.
My office has prosecuted several police officers. I personally prosecuted a case in which a Honolulu police officer was found guilty of burglary. When the officer appealed, I successfully argued the case before the Hawaii Supreme Court. The officer went to prison.
We will continue to review and prosecute cases involving police officers when there is sufficient evidence to support a conviction.
Previously a team from the prosecutor’s office had access to the scene of police shootings to observe HPD’s investigations and talk to witnesses. Our team produced its own reports detailing every shooting. These independent reports were used to cross-check HPD’s investigations.
Unfortunately, in 2019 HPD changed policy and now denies our team access. I encourage HPD to reconsider and grant us access so we can again conduct independent reviews.
I believe the vast majority of our officers are good people committed to serving the public. I support their efforts. I also applaud peaceful protesters calling for positive change.
5. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. What would you do to address racism and discriminatory treatment in law enforcement?
I will support educational opportunities for Native Hawaiians to prevent their entry into the criminal justice system. I will also support additional cultural and ethnic sensitivity training for our officers.
Decades of social and economic injustice have put some ethnic groups, including Native Hawaiians, at a disadvantage. The tremendous focus on racial inequity today provides an opportunity to listen, learn and improve.
It would be wrong to suggest my administration contributes in any way to disproportionate representation in our prisons by any one group. I run a diverse office. I myself am of mixed ancestry. My hand-picked first deputy is a woman of Hawaiian and Filipino ancestry.
Race plays no role whatsoever in our decisions to charge cases. We charge based on the evidence presented to us.
Fortunately, Honolulu’s police force is representative of Oahu’s population as a whole.
Let us not forget in the months before the COVID-19 pandemic and before George Floyd was brutally killed by police, people on Oahu were clamoring for more officers on our streets. An increase in robberies and purse snatchings had people frightened to go outside. Our mayor was celebrated for proposing funding for 100 additional police officers.
6. Jails and prisons are overcrowded, and Hawaii’s correctional facilities are in poor physical condition. What would you do to reduce overcrowding in the jails and prisons?
First let me tell you what I would not do. I would not jeopardize public safety by releasing dangerous criminals just because our jails and prisons are inadequate. I would not set HOPE Probation participants free again and again believing they may miraculously stop committing crimes to support their drug habits. And I would not let the threat of a virus prompt the release of criminals who had lawfully been sent to correctional facilities.
Rather than jeopardize the lives and property of law-abiding citizens I favor building new larger modern jails and prisons as soon as economically feasible.
Our facilities need more beds and more space. They need proven in-house treatment programs and educational and vocational opportunities where inmates can actually be rehabilitated. We need real corrections in our Corrections Division.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved the need for larger facilities. Hundreds and hundreds of inmates were prematurely set free because defense attorneys convinced judges that inmates were at risk. As a result, dangerous criminals were turned loose, and public safety was compromised.
Remember, before the pandemic hit, the governor and state lawmakers were moving to approve funding for a new jail on Oahu. Let’s not lose sight of that goal.
7. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
Listening to community concerns and answering questions from the public has never been more important, and I doubt the prosecutor’s office has ever been more responsive than it is under my leadership.
My team fields questions every day. People want to know how to initiate a case. They ask for case updates. They seek information about specific laws. They also voice their opinion about specific cases.
Since becoming acting prosecuting attorney, we have received hundreds of communications via email through the contact function on our office website. Many more inquiries have come by telephone. All of them, 100%, are answered promptly.
In my year-plus as acting prosecuting attorney, I have granted every media request for an interview. We have followed state law in producing records and providing data. I have attended community meetings, large and small, to answer questions from residents. I have been as open, transparent and accessible as law enforcement confidentiality permits.
The prosecuting attorney must interact with the public. He or she must not only address the public’s questions and concerns, but also stay connected to the issues affecting our various communities.
8. Gov. David Ige suspended the state laws on public records and open meetings because of COVID-19. Do you think that was appropriate? What will you do to ensure your agency’s business is conducted as openly as possible?
I have no reason to believe Gov. Ige suspended open meeting requirements for any reason other than to save lives.
The governor’s order did not impact the prosecutor’s office as much as the Judiciary’s decision to postpone all trials and grand jury proceedings until the threat from COVID-19 was more manageable. Though courtrooms closed, our deputy prosecutors, paralegals, clerks and investigators continued to work through the pandemic. We continued to charge cases, serve subpoenas and prepare for trial.
Time that would have been spent at trial was instead used for additional training. We arranged webinars in which deputy prosecutors received specialized training from subject experts from across the nation.
Our victim witness advocates continued to meet with victims of crime and witnesses. Our advocates did not stop providing valuable support to victims and preparing them for the day when trials would resume.
9. What other issue would you like to address or make the voters aware of?
• I am determined to change the laws and law enforcement practices in domestic violence cases so we can protect victims and end the vicious cycle of violence that devastates so many families.
I have hired one of the nation’s most respected experts in successfully prosecuting domestic violence cases. He is training attorneys in our Domestic Violence Division. He is teaching techniques that enable successful prosecution even when victims decide not to testify against their abusers.
• Methamphetamine is the elephant in the room too many are ignoring. A huge percentage of the crimes in Honolulu are committed so addicts can fund their meth habit.
They steal cars for meth money. They break into homes for meth money. They purse-snatch for meth money. Those crimes will continue until we address the methamphetamine problem.
Hawaii has tried HOPE Probation, a “kid glove” approach that sets addicts free again and again without consequence. While HOPE has given addicts little reason to reform, meth-related deaths in Hawaii have skyrocketed from 37 deaths in 2009 to 170 deaths in 2019 (129 in Honolulu). That increase of more than 350% happened while the revolving door of HOPE Probation spun out of control.