If you get arrested for domestic violence in Honolulu, odds are slim that you’ll face a conviction.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm estimates that in an average year, the city charges about 1,200 people with misdemeanors for domestic violence, but only 3% are convicted.

That low rate may increase now that Alm, who took office in January, is overhauling how the city prosecutes domestic violence cases.

Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm discusses collaboration with the Sex Abuse Treatment Center.
Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm says from now on, the prosecutor’s office will pursue fewer domestic violence cases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

For decades, Honolulu adhered to a “no drop” policy, which meant that every single alleged domestic abuser would be charged even if the victim recanted their testimony.

The policy was originally designed to ensure that the city was vigilant in prosecuting domestic violence. But a city audit recently recommended suspending the practice because it is so resource-intensive.

Alm said the audit alerted him to drawbacks of the “no drop” policy and he plans to get rid of it, effectively ending a mandate that required prosecutors to pursue cases even if the evidence was thin and they were unlikely to succeed.

“Our obligation as prosecutors is to only take cases that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Alm said, but that hasn’t been happening for domestic violence cases for about 30 years.

The changes come as Hawaii struggles with increased reports of domestic violence during the pandemic. Nanci Kreidman, who leads the Domestic Violence Action Center, said calls to the nonprofit’s help line jumped 38.5% between April 2020 and April 2021.

It’s normal now for the nonprofit to get 22 texts and chats from clients each day, compared to 10 to 12 daily pre-pandemic. Overall, the organization has seen families with 23,599 children since April 2020, Kreidman said.

The 2017 city audit criticized how the Honolulu prosecutor’s office and the Honolulu Police Department were handling domestic abuse cases. An update to the audit issued this month found the agencies were still in the process of implementing most recommendations.

Alm said he’s committed to improving how the city prosecutes domestic abuse, and noted that in May the prosecutor’s office had its first all-staff training since 1987. He also hopes to partner with HPD to do more training specific to domestic violence.

Kreidman said that would be a welcome change.

“We haven’t really made good transformative changes to our system in a very, very long time,” she said.

Why Drop “No Drop”

Alm said he was persuaded to get rid of the “no drop” policy after he reached out to local advocates for domestic violence survivors as well as national prosecutors’ associations and found that Honolulu’s adherence to the policy was rare.

“I discovered it was us and a couple of small counties in Georgia are the only places in the country continuing to do a rigid ‘no drop’ policy,” he said. “We are making this a much more victim-centered approach.”

Domestic violence cases can be complicated. The strongest cases, Alm said, won’t go to trial because defendants will take a plea deal. Weaker cases might go to trial, and Alm said defense attorneys often request jury trials because judges are more likely than juries to convict a domestic abuser.

“We are making this a much more victim-centered approach.” — Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm

Sometimes the wait for a jury trial is so long that a case will be dismissed because the delay violates the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

Alm said he learned from local victim advocates that case dismissals and acquittals can further embolden abusers.

“We don’t want to keep empowering these guys,” he said.

Angelina Mercado, from the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that getting rid of the policy is “a way to listen to what survivors want.”

“We need to validate and recognize survivor voice and survivor choice,” she said.

“Our community’s response should be providing support to survivors in their autonomy … not taking their power away,” echoed Kreidman. “What’s the point really of investing money and time and resources to no avail? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Prosecutors may still pursue a case that the victim doesn’t support if there’s compelling 911 tape, photographs of injuries or other evidence such as statements from the victim at the scene of the crime. But now they’ll use their judgment — as they do for all other cases — and decide to pursue cases based on available evidence.

“To me we are doing this the right way, we’re listening to the victims,” he said. “We are not going to be this paternalistic group that says we know what’s better for you than you know.”

He believes getting rid of the “no drop” policy will enable prosecutors to get more convictions.

More Progress Needed

The “no drop” policy isn’t the only part of the prosecutor office’s system that needs improvement, according to the audit.

The city auditor found in June that the prosecutor’s office still hadn’t implemented a policy establishing “vertical” handling of domestic violence cases — essentially, trying to ensure that the same attorney handled each case from start to finish.

The prosecutor’s office told the city auditor that they try to do this but in practice it can be thwarted by staff turnover.

The auditor said a written policy is needed to establish this as a best practice.

There’s also a lot of room for improvement in how the prosecutor’s office shares data with the police department and how the prosecutor’s office measures success.

The June audit update found that the prosecutor’s office was in the process of developing benchmarks to evaluate the performance of attorneys prosecuting domestic violence.

“We certainly try to do vertical prosecution,” Alm said. He added that the city is also trying to do a better job of identifying which cases are classified as domestic violence and has hired several good new prosecutors.

“We are trying to get the computer system set up to better track which cases are domestic violence,” he said.

Mercado said better data about domestic violence crimes would go a long way to helping advocates and policymakers design better interventions to prevent not only abuse but also death by domestic abuse.

“That kind of data is just critical for this community and we’re just missing it,” she said.

Kreidman said she hopes that Gov. David Ige signs House Bill 566 which would expand the definition of domestic abuse to make coercive control a misdemeanor during a five-year pilot project.

The prosecutor’s office and other law enforcement agencies strongly oppose the bill because they say the definition of coercive control is too broad. Ige has until July 6 to sign it, veto it or let it go into law without his signature.

Kreidman said it’s long past time to reform the system.

It has not worked for a very long time,” she said. 

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