The cash leader in Hawaii island’s race for prosecutor isn’t campaigning on change, more like fine-tuning what’s mostly in place.
Kelden Waltjen, Hawaii County’s deputy prosecuting attorney, has outraised his two opponents in campaign donations by at least $25,000. He’s also the only candidate not touting major changes to the office as his top priorities should he be elected during the Aug. 8 primary.
Waltjen, who earned his law degree from the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, has worked as deputy prosecutor since 2012, the year Mitch Roth won the job as Hawaii’s top prosecutor.
The prosecuting attorney, the only other countywide office besides the mayor, is a nonpartisan four-year post. Roth will have served two terms when he leaves in December. The office’s budget is around $11 million with over 120 staff members, 38 of which are attorneys.
Waltjen has so far outraised his competitors. He’s brought in about $34,000 according to the most recent campaign report filed with the state.
Auna has raised $5,200 while Bridges has collected about $2,700.
The 33-year-old Hilo resident is pledging to continue – as well as supplement — much of the work done under current prosecutor and mayoral candidate Mitch Roth.
“As an experienced deputy prosecutor who is in court almost every day, I understand the current workload of our staff and the caseloads of our attorneys,” Waltjen said. “I am fortunate to have overwhelming support from our office ‘ohana and these relationships will help me to accomplish (my) goals.”
In a tight primary race of his own, Roth didn’t endorse Waltjen when asked by Civil Beat whom he favored in the race for the seat he’s vacating. But he did tout Waltjen’s strengths as an attorney and leader. Roth has worked with all three candidates, although Waltjen is the only one with whom he works currently.
“I can say this,” Roth said. “Last year Kelden won the employee of the year for his dedication and commitment to making Hawaii County a safer and healthier place to live. Not only does he work over 300 quality hours of unpaid overtime every year, he is a problem-solver and makes himself available to police and others regularly. He has taken it upon himself to educate himself and others about the worst criminals on the island and make sure that action is taken when those people break the law.”
While his competition criticizes him as lacking experience, Waltjen points to his years under Roth as invaluable for learning what needs to be done to run the prosecutor’s office.
He’s the candidate most familiar with the office’s organizational structure, policies, procedures and special programs, he said, and he’ll lean on those strong working relationships to ensure a successful transition.
Unlike his competition, Waltjen isn’t promoting a dramatic shift in office priorities, either.
He said he plans to reevaluate current policies, improve accountability and transparency, and enhance coordination and training among the department’s three offices, as well as assign deputy prosecutors to certain districts for better representation.
He stands by the local police department, which is reviewing its policies in light of the George Floyd homicide, but said at a recent candidate forum he believes it to be an “excellent” department.
Waltjen doesn’t believe the cash bail system needs a complete overhaul, either, which runs counter to the other candidates.
Waltjen said the current method of using a scheduled bail amount based on the type of offense committed is a fair way to determine whether a defendant should be required to post money for their release.
It also takes some of the subjectivity out of the decision, he added. The method also gives defendants an opportunity to address bail during court hearings.
“I actually believe our cash bail system in Hawaii County is pretty fair compared with other jurisdictions across the state,” he said during a June 23 virtual forum hosted by the Waimea Community Association.
That opinion runs counter to that of Bridges and Auna.
Bridges, a Mountain View resident and private practice attorney with 20 years of law experience, says eliminating cash bail for low-risk, nonviolent offenders is a top priority for him.
He explained that a defendant in custody is 66% more likely to agree to a plea deal just to get out of jail because supervised release is often a part of a plea deal. Prosecutors overcharge defendants knowing this bit of information, which corrodes public trust in the system and runs counter to the fundamental truth that all people are innocent until proven guilty.
“It’s a lot easier to fight a case from the outside than it is from the inside,” he said. Wealth “shouldn’t be a determinant if someone goes free.”
Bridges didn’t respond to messages from Civil Beat but did lay out his priorities at the virtual candidate forum.
Washington, D.C., has proven that eliminating cash bail on qualifying offenders can work and has reduced pretrial supervision costs from $150 per day per offender to a meager $18 per day, he pointed out. The vast majority of people still show up for their court appointments, which saves money and alleviates overcrowding in the jails.
“We need to be more innovative,” he said.
Part of that “innovation” would be how prosecutors and law enforcement deal with the War on Drugs. Simply put, Bridges said, a cease-fire is needed: treating addicts like criminals isn’t working.
His goal would be to focus resources on rehabilitation and help with mental health issues rather than incarceration. That would include demilitarizing the police department and approaching the drug problem with a view toward treatment. He called the current method of jailing non-violent offenders “really astounding.”
“We’re punishing people for having an addiction,” he said.
Bridges, 48, served as a deputy public defender in San Diego, first deputy prosecuting attorney on Kauai and deputy prosecutor in Hawaii County before moving into private practice in 2011. He’s tried more than 60 jury trials.
He graduated from the University of Hawaii Manoa and earned his law degree at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
Auna, 38, another former deputy prosecuting attorney who worked for Hawaii County from 2017 to 2019, also served as a deputy prosecutor on Maui and Kauai. He graduated from Hilo High School, earned his law degree at Barry University in Florida, and is currently working as a trial attorney in Hilo.
He said he would slash the prosecutor’s budget if elected, including removing outdated equipment like fax machines and forgoing all off-island training. He’d also assign employees to courtrooms on a case-by-case basis to increase efficiency and communication between the office and victims.
But his top priorities would be to focus on missing children cases and crack down on drunken driving infractions.
He didn’t respond to questions from Civil Beat but said at the forum increasing awareness about missing children cases would be a first step. That would entail prosecutors and police going into classrooms and educating students directly, as well as getting parks department employees involved.
“That’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “That’s going to be at the forefront.”
Missing children cases have gained more attention around the island in recent months. Some believe the cases are tied to sex trafficking rings, although there’s no indication of large scale arrests to support that theory. Nevertheless, community forums have been held across the island in the last couple of years and a Hawaii County Council member invited the police department to a meeting last month to address the issue.
The police department’s Juvenile Aid Section told the council that 853 missing child reports were made in 2008. By comparison, only 417 reports were filed in 2019 and only 152 by June of this year.
The department attributed the decrease in cases to the police’s increased efficiency notifying the public, and said most missing child reports are primarily runaways, most of whom are found and returned to their parents or guardians.
But that is too many for Auna.
“If one child is missing, then we have to find that child,” he said.
Like Bridges, Auna said nonviolent offenders shouldn’t be locked up as frequently as they are. But Auna’s solution to overcrowded jails focuses more on building bigger and better facilities to house inmates. He also pledged a crackdown on negligent homicide cases involving alcohol — cases such as DUI accidents involving a fatality.
“Your safety on the road is my concern right now,” he said. “I’m going to hit that hard, too.”
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