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?
Time and again, we see the wealthy and the well connected able to free themselves and mount a vigorous defense when charged with crimes, while the poor and disenfranchised are given the choice of pleading out or languishing in jail due to their inability to post pre-trial bail.
As prosecutor, I will promote the elimination of cash bail for non-violent offenders and only seek cash bail where the defendant truly poses a threat to our community or is a serious flight risk. Washington, D.C., has shown that this approach can work and has reduced pretrial supervision costs from $150 per day per offender to a meager $18 per day. Yet they find that the vast majority of people still show up for court as ordered. This approach saves money and alleviates overcrowding in the jails.
2. 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?
I firmly believe that mass incarceration of non-violent offenders is a failure. Locking people up and branding them as felons does not change behaviors nor does it deter crime. On the contrary, long periods of incarceration and the stigma of being an ex-convict often has the negative effect of eliminating possibilities for jobs and housing, both for the person locked up and for their family members. Imprisonment is appropriate for some people (those who engage in predatory behaviors against other citizens, especially vulnerable populations), but most people placed in America’s jails since 1971 are there because they are drug addicts, or homeless, or mentally ill.
We should treat drug addiction as a public health issue rather than a purely criminal one. We should strive to divert funding from jails to rehabilitation programs and prevention education.
We need to train our police to better deal with those suffering from mental health issues and consider non-penal diversion programs for the mentally ill. We would not lock up our grandmother because she got cancer. Why should we imprison our cousin because he is bipolar?
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?
Unfortunately, the haste involved in the COVID releases precluded a proper vetting of who should have been released and who shouldn’t have.
Some who should have never been locked up in the first place got released. This was a very good thing.
Some who should have been locked up, also got released — not a good thing.
Some who should have been released are still in jail — also not good.
This would not have been a problem had the courts and the prosecutors only jailed violent and repeat offenders to begin with, then we should not have needed to release anyone due to COVID. We need to prosecute smarter so that there is room for violent offenders and so that our jail cells are not overcrowded.
If we look at the people who are locked up in Hawaii for low-level street crimes, we see that they are primarily the homeless, the mentally ill, or drug addicts. Often, they fall into more than one of these three categories. We need to look for alternatives to jail for these populations. We need to expand our social services for the economically disadvantaged. We need to have more treatment options for the mentally ill. And we need rehabilitation and diversion programs for drug users and addicts.
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?
Statistically, the victims of the drug war have been people of color and the poor. This has resulted in police officers seeing these populations as “the enemy.”
The war on drugs has led us here.
The recent spate of police killings is an unfortunate, though foreseeable consequence of our nation’s “war on drugs.” The drug war has resulted in the militarization of our police forces, creating an “us versus them” mentality.
Let’s declare a cease-fire. Let’s try a new approach that recognizes each drug user as a human being worthy of respect. Let’s demilitarize our police and approach the drug problem with a view toward treatment rather than incarceration. In the end, this will make the jobs of our police officers easier and, most importantly, safer.
All use of force by police should be subject to departmental review. Any serious injury or death should be examined by a citizen review board and the prosecutor’s office. Police officers should be subject to the same laws as everyone else. How can we citizens grant to the police powers which we do not possess as individuals? It is time to rethink qualified immunity and hold all citizens to the same standard.
5. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. What would you do to address racism and discriminatory treatment in law enforcement?
Before we can adequately remedy any problem, we must first acknowledge that a problem exists. With the problem of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, the first step is to quantify the issue. That is, we must see how many Native Hawaiians are actually in the system and what kinds of charges are they facing. Then we need to see what consequences they are facing and compare these numbers to those of other ethnic groups. Are they over-represented? I believe that they are. However, the actual numbers are mostly nebulous and anecdotal.
As prosecutor, I will support the collection of data for our cases (charged and uncharged) to determine the extent of any statistically disparate outcomes based on race. I will strive to determine the causes of any disparate treatment of different racial and ethnic groups and seek to eliminate those causes to the extent practicable by my office.
All people are entitled to equal justice irrespective of the color of their skin, their race, their ethnicity, their gender, their religion, their sexual preference or identity, or their economic status. As prosecutor, I will implement policies and training aimed at eliminating bias.
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
The key to earning the confidence and respect of our citizens is through open communication and transparency. This starts with having a solid victim advocate unit in place. It is imperative that victim advocates be apprised of any changes to the status of a pending case and that our actions are centered around keeping all stakeholders in the loop.
At the outset, this means that the prosecution team should meet with crime victims and their families as part of the case evaluation process and provide updates and ask for input before plea offers are made.
On a larger scale, the prosecutor needs to seek public input on major cases and issues and should address public concerns as they arise.
This is the 21st century. There is absolutely no reason why citizens should be in the dark as to the workings of their local prosecutor’s office.
I will strive to implement outreach programs through social media, our website and community forums to help develop and foster public trust.
7. 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?
A lot of what happens in a prosecutor’s office must, out of necessity, occur behind closed doors. However, this does not mean that the reasoning for a particular policy or a charging decision in a particular case should be beyond public scrutiny.
As prosecutor for Hawaii County, I will ensure open and honest communication between our office, the media, local government and the citizens. If we all work together, we can make the Big Island a safe and healthy place to live, work and play.
8. What other issue would you like to address or make the voters aware of?
As human beings, we are at a sea change in history. In 2020, we have seen the devastation of our economy and riots in major U.S. cities from coast to coast. We have seen a clamoring for change. We have the unique opportunity right now and right here to do something amazing. We can be the change.
We can choose to stay the course with failed systems that disfavor the poor and racial minorities, or we can try a new approach. A humanitarian approach that is focused on families and peace and prosperity. We can try to be better. We can be better.
You have taken the first step. You are here finding out about your local candidates. Now spread the word. Let’s pick our representatives not by popularity contests or with the battle of who has the most plastic signs. Let’s choose based on ideas. Spread the word. Vote.
I am Christopher R. Bridges. I am a trial lawyer with 20 years experience in criminal law. I am the only candidate with experience running a prosecutor’s office and the one most willing to change that which is not working. I humbly ask for your vote for prosecuting attorney.