Kauai County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar will step down this month from the job he’s held for nearly a decade, clearing the way for a special election to determine who will next lead the office.

A special primary election is scheduled for Dec. 18, followed by a special general election on Feb. 26. 

The estimated cost to the county to hold the elections is $475,000, according to Kauai County Council Chairman Arryl Kaneshiro.

The acting prosecutor for Kauai will be Rebecca Like, who has worked in the county prosecutor’s office since 2010, spending the last nine years as third-in-command of a 45-person staff. 

Like, who lives in Anahola, announced that she will also campaign to hold on to the seat. Kollar has endorsed her, saying she’s intelligent, hardworking and “checks every single box that you would want in the person who runs the office.”

Kollar, who will leave the county on Sept. 30, has accepted a job as chief of staff for the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution and plans to relocate to California. He started working for the county in 2008, first as a county attorney, then as deputy prosecutor before winning three consecutive elections to serve as the county’s top prosecutor. 

Justin Kollar, Kauai, Prosecutor
Kauai Prosecutor Justin Kollar is leaving his position at the end of September, prompting a special election. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2020

A reform-minded prosecutor, Kollar worked to keep low-level offenders out of Kauai’s justice system — people who might have avoided committing crimes if they’d had access to drug treatment, mental health care or housing.

Under his leadership, the county stopped prosecuting most marijuana possession offenses, as well as certain traffic infractions where no one was injured.

“It was pretty common when I became a prosecutor to send people to jail for up to a year for driving without a driver’s license,” Kollar said. “Of course, everybody has to have a driver’s license. It’s the law and we enforce that. But to send somebody to jail for a year for driving without a license is not helping anyone. It’s draconian.”

When he was first elected in 2012, Kollar said an average of just under 200 people were locked up at Kauai Community Correctional Center at any given time. Now that number hovers around 125 people, he said.

“Cases where we do see substantial harm to the community — murder cases, gun cases, sexual assaults — we prosecute those cases as vigorously as we ever did,” Kollar said. “But for the other stuff where we’re just turning people in and out of District Court and just giving them more and more fines and fees and more and more obstacles to their future success, we’re trying not to do that anymore.”

Kollar, who was elected to his third term last year, leaves the seat more than three years before it ends in 2024. 

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Rebecca Like announced that she intends to campaign for county prosecutor, calling herself a progressive candidate. Courtesy: Rebecca Like/2021

He said he regrets leaving office without seeing the county stand up a long-promised adolescent drug treatment center, a project he said he helped shepherd for more than a decade. 

Built on donated land with $7 million in state and county funds, Kauai’s inpatient rehabilitation building was intended to fill a glaring gap for drug-dependent youth in a community starved for mental health and addiction resources.

But the project has come to a standstill.

The county has temporarily repurposed the building as an isolation center for people infected with Covid-19.

Meanwhile, a controversy is brewing over the building’s future when the pandemic winds down.

“I wish I could have been the one to make that happen,” Kollar said.

The county clerk’s office will not begin accepting candidacy filings until after Kollar vacates his office on Sept. 30. 

But Like, who has already publicly announced her intent to campaign, said she had been considering a run for county prosecutor in 2024 even before Kollar announced his resignation.

When she steps into her temporary assignment on Oct. 1, she said she will work to continue Kollar’s legacy and won’t enact any major policy changes.

If voters elect her, she said she’d improve programs that help former prisoners reenter society and bolster social services and diversion programs for people who commit low-level offenses, such as trespassing or disorderly conduct, and lack access to mental health care or housing.

“Although I feel like there are definitely people who are threats to public safety, I feel like most people that we come into contact with here at our office struggle with either mental health issues or drug addiction, or both,” Like said. “And getting to the social and root causes of those issues is really the key to public safety here.”

As the coronavirus pandemic gives rise to virtual courtrooms, Like said she hopes the quick adoption of video conferencing technology will make the work of the county prosecutor’s office more transparent and boost community engagement with the criminal justice system.

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