In the race for Honolulu prosecutor, former judge Steve Alm is campaigning as a trustworthy and experienced probation advocate while his opponent, attorney Megan Kau, is promising a tough, by-the-book approach that she acknowledged could increase the prison population.
The candidates faced off on Monday for the first time since the primary in a forum hosted by the Kokua Council, a nonprofit that advocates for kupuna.
Alm, who worked over 30 years as a prosecutor and judge, said while his opponent is passionate, he is the one with a record of proven leadership.
“If she wants to apply as a deputy prosecutor, I would consider any application for that,” he said.
The candidates are running to replace Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro, who has been on paid leave for a year and a half after being notified he is the target of an FBI investigation. Alm and Kau were the top vote getters in the August primary, fending off progressive reformer Jacquie Esser, Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto and others.
Kau, a prominent defense attorney, is pitching voters an “objective yet aggressive” strategy. Her plan is to charge crimes of all levels strictly as the law allows – no more, no less. The current administration is failing to charge low-level crimes, according to Kau, and she argues that allows for more serious and violent offenses to occur later.
If under her approach more people will end up behind bars in Hawaii’s crowded prisons, so be it, Kau said. Her philosophy is that the prosecutor must enforce the law as written.
“The Department of Public Safety has to step up and the prosecutor has to educate the Legislature on providing more treatment,” she said.
Even as the prison system is releasing inmates to reduce crowding because of COVID-19, Kau said she would not slow down prosecutions. The state would just need to find additional venues to house prisoners, she said.
Alm believes there is more discretion in the job. He said he would focus his office’s resources on the “highest risk defendants” and try to keep low-level offenders out of prison. He said he would support an alternative to cash bail because it creates inequities between the rich and the poor. However, he said he doesn’t see that change happening anytime soon.
The architect of HOPE probation, a program through which defendants face escalating penalties for bad behavior, Alm is an advocate of treatment and supervision more than incarceration.
Alm, a former Honolulu and federal prosecutor, also said he would use the pandemic, when jury trials are on hold, to host training for deputy prosecutors.
“That’s what leadership is,” he said. “You don’t just react to things. You’re proactive.”
Kau said she is best positioned to root out corruption in the office because she has assisted the federal investigators who convicted former Deputy Prosecutor Katherine Kealoha. A former deputy prosecutor herself, Kau said Kealoha was her supervisor briefly before Kau was “forced to resign” within three months of Kaneshiro taking office.
Alm said he is the best candidate to restore trust in the office because of his decades of experience. He pointed to his endorsement from the police union as evidence of his standing among law enforcement.
“The police know they’re going get a tough prosecutor with me,” he said. “And they respect that.”
During the forum, the candidates took some jabs at each other. More than once, Kau referred to Alm as “out of touch,” pointing out that he hasn’t been the prosecutor in a trial in nearly 20 years.
“He’s not relevant at this time,” she said. “Things have changed.”
Alm countered that his last trial was eight years ago when he was a judge.
Kau also said that HOPE probation doesn’t work because it gives offenders too many opportunities to mess up.
“The criminals know they can get around the system,” she said.
Alm pointed to a 2010 study by Pepperdine University and UCLA that shows HOPE probationers were 55% less likely to be arrested for a new crime.
“Do you really want to send someone to prison for five years for testing positive for meth a couple times? No,” he said.
Versions of HOPE have been replicated in 33 states and Guam, Alm said. While it did show early promise locally, more recent studies in other places have raised serious doubt about its efficacy. Alm continues to preach the HOPE gospel, however, in a case of what one group of professors called “ignoring bad news.”
Alm said he has the “stature” to work hand in hand with other government officials like the Honolulu police chief, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney.
“Who can relate to them as a peer?” he asked. “Who has gone to the City Council and has their respect?”
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