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.

The following came from Jacquie Esser, candidate for Honolulu prosecutor. The other candidates are Steve Alm, RJ Brown, Megan Kau, Tae Kim, Dwight Nadamoto and Anosh Yaqoob.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for Honolulu Prosecutor

Jacquie Esser
Party Nonpartisan
Age 38
Occupation Attorney
Residence Kailua


Community organizations/prior offices held

President, Hawaii Women Lawyers; director, Hawaii Women Legal Foundation; coordinator, Aloha United Way Campaign; Access to Justice, Hui Aloha ʻĀina o Ka Lei Maile Aliʻi (KLMA), Emergency Reentry Group.

1. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your office? What will you do about it?

We must stop treating poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness as crimes and recognize them for what they are: complex social, economic and public health issues that require long-term solutions. That is why when I take office, I will promptly stop charging for drug possession, eliminate cash bail and end the criminalization of poverty.
We have to redefine the role of the prosecuting attorney. For the past 40 years prosecutors have been convicting people and locking them up in ever-increasing numbers, but that hasn’t made our communities safe. In fact, most people feel less safe today than ever before. We need a new approach to prosecution — one that addresses the root causes of crime, not just the symptoms. We need a new and more sustainable correctional model that reduces our reliance on incarceration and focuses on building communities where our families are safe and children can thrive.
We have to invest in crime prevention instead of always dealing with the tragic aftermath of crime, and we need a system that rehabilitates people caught up in the criminal justice system instead turning them into hardened criminals.

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 believe, as Justice Louis Brandeis once said, that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I will implement the key provisions of the prosecutorial transparency bill now pending in the Legislature (HB 2749) including putting the office’s major policies online and continuously collecting and publishing data on decision making within the office.

To create and maintain confidence and trust, prosecutors must be completely independent. They should not seek or accept contributions or political support from police unions as that creates an inherent conflict of interest that undermines trust and confidence.

I will create a safe environment for attorneys and staff to report misconduct, require attorneys to attend an annual review session on the ethical rules that govern lawyers, and create a culture that values honesty, integrity and the highest ethical standards.

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?

It was a necessary precaution to mitigate against a COVID-19 outbreak in our correctional facilities and the possible deaths of prisoners and correctional officers.

It is important to remember that in early April when the Supreme Court ordered the release of certain low-level offenders, the number of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii was at its peak, social distancing was impossible in our overcrowded correctional facilities (OCCC was at 187 percent of its design capacity), inmates and correctional staff did not have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and the Marshall Project was reporting that nearly 10,000 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 and the number of cases were expected to double each week. The Hawaii Supreme Court made the right decision based on all of the available evidence and what we knew about the coronavirus at that time.

Hawaii was lucky. We had low community spread and the virus did not get into our jails or prisons, so in hindsight you can say we should not have released anyone, but hindsight is 20/20. The Supreme Court acted prudently. If the coronavirus had entered our prison system it would have spread quickly and threatened the entire community.

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?

Police unions are very powerful and exist in large part to shield police officers from public scrutiny, accountability and discipline. When police unions endorse a candidate for prosecutor it sets up an inherent conflict of interest. As a first step toward greater accountability for police we should prohibit candidates for prosecuting attorney from seeking or accepting political or financial support from police unions. When Hawaii’s police union endorsed a candidate in the Oahu prosecutors race, it said it did so because he “never worked against law enforcement . . . In fact, he is our law enforcer” (Honolulu Star-Advertiser, November 22, 2019). I do not want to be the police union’s law enforcer; I want be the law enforcer for the people of the City and County of Honolulu.

Furthermore, to hold police who abuse their power accountable, I will implement an independent unit of prosecutors within the office who only investigate and charge abuse of power and police misconduct cases.

Lastly, recent events, including the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, remind us all that we must be vigilant when it comes to allegations of use of force by law enforcement.  I will make every effort to ensure charging deputies view all available evidence before charging a suspect for resisting arrest, assault on a law enforcement officer, or other allegations of force or violence on an officer. I will require that deputies reviewing the case for charging must review all relevant body worn camera footage and any other available relevant evidence before a charging decision is made.

5. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. What would you do to address racism and discriminatory treatment in law enforcement?

We should begin by doing some relatively simple things that are obvious and long overdue: Diversify the workforce so that prosecutors and staff reflect the diversity of the community; implement implicit bias training for lawyers and staff; institute a data collection system that will identify racial disparities at critical stages in the criminal justice system; institute evidenced-based early intervention strategies that are focused on diverting Native Hawaiian youth away from the criminal justice system and toward pathways for success; expand culturally relevant in-prison programs for Native Hawaiians; and implement the recommendations of the many working groups and task forces that have addressed this issue over the past 15 years.

Beyond that, we have tons of data showing that the neighborhoods that have a high Native Hawaiian population also have many of the conditions that help crime to flourish: poverty, poor schools, unemployment, lack of opportunity, drugs, gangs — the whole nine yards. If we are serious about addressing racial disparity, we have to address those conditions and invest in these resource-starved communities.

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?

States that have successfully reduced their prison populations have done so by reducing criminal penalties or adjusting them downward according to the seriousness of the offense; eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing; expanding treatment courts; reducing incarceration for people who fail community supervision; improving reentry support for incarcerated people reentering the community; and reducing barriers to employment for individuals who were previously incarcerated.

Jurisdictions that have reduced their jail populations have done so by diverting non-violent, low-level offenders to programs that provide social services and case management instead of locking them up; issuing more criminal citations in lieu of taking people into custody; and enacting bail reform.

I support all of the above, and in addition I would reduce the jail population by declining to prosecute people accused of violating ordinances like the sit-lie ban that punish poverty and homelessness, and I would recommend community-based treatment for defendants with mental illness and substance abuse issues.

7. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?

For too long the Prosecutor’s Office has operated in a black box.  We need to turn the office into a community-centered, restorative justice-oriented partner for public health and safety.  Our office will work with community leaders, community organizations, neighborhood boards and elected representatives, listen to what they say, and allocate resources to implement the crime prevention policies they want.

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?

No, I think that was a mistake. The government could have managed the COVID-19 pandemic in an open and transparent manner. There was no need to suspend the laws that promote transparency and accountability.

9. What other issue would you like to address or make the voters aware of?

The more than 10 years I have spent as a public defender have given me a unique perspective on our criminal justice system. I have seen how the system punishes offenders without rehabilitating them, and adds to the trauma of crime victims without helping them heal. The system is intentionally and unnecessarily cruel, and every day it does more harm than good. I believe that our criminal justice system does not reflect the value of Hawaii’s people, and that the people of Hawaii want and deserve real justice, real change and real reform.