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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General 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 Steven Alm, candidate for Honolulu prosecutor. The other candidate is Megan Kau.
1. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your office? What will you do about it?
This campaign for Honolulu prosecutor is all about restoring trust in that office.
First, I would create a culture of high ethical standards of conduct and of doing justice, not just winning cases. This will involve looking at various practices, such as charging, discovery and plea agreements. I will also institute formal training for the deputy prosecutors in ethics and trial skills. Better skilled and ethical trial attorneys will be more effective in court and be able to enter into plea agreements from a position of strength.
Second, I will look closely at reorganizing the office. I will question whether the existing organization structure best serves the needs of the criminal justice system and the victims. I will look at creating specialized teams of deputy prosecutors, such as for homicides and drug cases, to be more efficient and produce better outcomes.
Finally, I will re-establish the Prosecutor’s Office as a full partner, who believes in open communication and collaboration, with all of the other criminal justice agencies in Honolulu.
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?
First, we would examine all of the cases touched by former deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, determine her involvement, and take the appropriate action. This could range from allowing the case to proceed to dismissing it. We would look for any other potential corruption in the office, root it out, and deal with it.
Second, I would focus on hiring practices and training for both new and current deputy prosecutors.
Third, I will look at initiating new and innovative programs to address community crime concerns. I will also look at reinstating initiatives that have proven successful in the past, like Weed & Seed, where I led the effort that reduced crime in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown by over 70 percent in 3 years.
Fourth, I would ensure that no deputy prosecutor handled a case either as a supervisor or a line deputy if they have a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Finally, I would make the Prosecutor’s Office much more transparent so the public would know what we are doing and the improvements we are making.
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?
Public defenders advocated releasing hundreds of inmates from jail because of concerns about them contracting COVID-19.
Initially, many inmates were released in the normal course (bail, finishing sentences, etc). Others were released through defense/prosecution agreement. HPD also made fewer arrests.
I would have preferred to stop the emergency releases then. There were zero reported cases of COVID-19 in jail. There was no meaningful supervision of releasees. Due to physical distancing, there was/is no drug testing, and no face-to-face meetings with supervisory officers.
The responsibility for managing this now reduced population should have been placed with the Department of Public Safety (PSD). I am confident they would have handled it through testing (inmates, guards, civilian employees), and quarantining using available spaces (e.g. courtyards, gyms) or temporary structures at OCCC or other PSD facilities, or National Guard Armories.
This would have prevented inmates who had no place to live from being homeless. This put them at higher risk of being victimized, and exposed to drugs and possible COVID-19 infection. It also would have meant no new emergency releasee arrests.
Now, we may have transferred the COVID-19 risk from the jail to the 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?
No one is above the law. When police officers break the law they need to be held accountable and prosecuted. This is necessary to restore trust in the Prosecutor’s Office.
I demonstrated my commitment to this when I was the U.S. attorney. We received information that a Pearl City police station sergeant was beating up arrestees. It wasn’t easy, but the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated the case, and charged the sergeant with civil rights violations. He was convicted and sent to federal prison for more than five years. We also investigated, charged and convicted an HPD officer for corruption for providing confidential police information to the Frank Moon drug organization. He went to federal prison for more than 12 years.
In a perfect world of unlimited budgets, it might make sense to create a totally separate organization, not under the authority of the Honolulu prosecutor, HPD, or the attorney general, made up of experienced investigators and prosecutors, to handle all prosecutorial decision-making concerning law enforcement officers. Until that day, as Honolulu prosecutor, I would investigate and charge, when appropriate, all matters where we receive credible information that police officers have committed a crime.
5. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. What would you do to address racism and discriminatory treatment in law enforcement?
As Honolulu prosecutor I would emphasize ethics and doing justice at all phases of the prosecution process, from charging, through trial, to appeal. All deputy prosecutors would undergo implicit bias training. I took that training as a judge and found it very useful. I would also encourage HPD officers to undergo implicit bias training.
I would encourage the expansion of judiciary programs that have been found to eliminate discriminatory outcomes for defendants. For example, research by Pepperdine and UCLA found that Native Hawaiian felony defendants on regular probation got revoked and sent to prison 26 percent of the time, while Native Hawaiians on HOPE Probation got revoked and sent to prison only 15 percent of the time, a rate comparable to other ethnic groups. Given that the HOPE judge supervises more than 2,000 felony probationers at once, that means hundreds of Native Hawaiian men and women have succeeded on probation and avoided going to prison because they were in HOPE.
I believe that the HOPE strategy succeeds because the probationers perceive, and in fact, are treated fairly. The rules and sanctions are clear and are enforced consistently across the board. This reduces the opportunity for bias, conscious or not, with HOPE probationers.
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?
As a judge and prosecutor I have believed that research and data should guide criminal justice policy as opposed to “gut feelings,” anecdote, hearsay, or “We’ve always done it this way.”
I would promote new and innovative strategies, as well as proven ones, that reduce the number of people arrested and sent to jail and prison and that reduce recidivism.
I have a proven record of this. Combined with other community initiatives, I led the Weed & Seed effort in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown that resulted in felonies dropping from 3,041 to 746 and misdemeanors from 7,686 to 2,346 in 3 years.
HOPE Probation has succeeded in reducing arrests for new crimes and in helping people succeed on felony probation and avoid going to prison. Research by Pepperdine and UCLA showed that HOPE probationers, when compared to those in regular probation, were arrested for new crimes 55 percent less often and served/were sentenced to 48 percent fewer days in prison. Expanding HOPE in Probation and into pretrial and parole will yield similar reductions. Recent research found that those in HOPE Pretrial were arrested for new felonies 42 percent less often than those in regular pretrial.
Statutory changes here and elsewhere might prove beneficial.
7. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
First, I would endeavor to make the operations of the office much more transparent, and we will be accessible to the media and the public to explain our actions and results. We will do outreach, by me, the deputies, and victim witness counselors, to explain what the office is doing, and to shed light on criminal activity that is taking place, such as the sex trafficking of our young girls and boys.
Second, I would like to collect statistics to see better how the office is performing in prosecuting cases.
Third, I plan to participate in community events on a regular basis and listen to what the community has to say.
Fourth, I am committed to listening to and working with the different neighborhoods to solve those crime problems identified by the residents and businesses there. In Weed & Seed, we focused our efforts based on input from the residents and businesses of Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown.
Fifth, I plan to set up a hotline for people to call in and report, anonymously or otherwise, any corruption they see or are aware of.
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 believe, in some instances, COVID-19 presented issues that were not immediately capable of being managed. The capacity to tele-communicate may have been hampered by the antiquated equipment and lack of necessary software to effectively maintain operations, thus requiring time to transition to a secure platform. Indeed, software companies are now responding to security issues and enabling features to accommodate the business setting.
Transparency is crucial and meetings could have, and may very well have, been postponed for a month. This would have been particularly critical in situations where public comment should be considered before rendering any decision.
Certainly, it was a challenging time for all concerned and the government would have had to be prepared to rely heavily on computerization, providing access to others without electronic capabilities, and providing safeguards for physical distancing, to name a few.
As the U.S. attorney, the office was open and accessible. Queries from the media and the public were answered to the greatest extent possible, and I will continue to hold this approach in making the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office as accessible and transparent as possible, within law enforcement confidentiality limitations.
9. What other issue would you like to address or make the voters aware of?
Domestic violence, or, “intimate partner terrorism,” per the author of a powerful recent book, “No Visible Bruises,” is one of the most serious, seemingly intractable issues in society today. If elected, I will make every effort to prosecute domestic violence cases more effectively.
We will train the deputy prosecutors to be skilled in handling these important and difficult cases. We will look at the best evidence-gathering techniques, train jointly with HPD, use new technologies, and see what is working elsewhere.
I will remind men that they are the primary cause of most domestic violence. It’s not about anger management, it’s about control. Similarly, when I speak to school groups, I will tell them if your boyfriend or girlfriend is trying to manipulate who you see and talk to, that is not love, it’s control, and a huge red flag.
Women, most of whom have children, are the primary victims of domestic violence. We need to empower women economically so they have the ability to make the best choices for themselves and for their children. These would include things like, affordable child care, A+-style after-school programs, and (the now defunct) Queen’s Hospital Sick Child Care.