Hawai‘i County Prosecutor’s Office releases results of survey; some skeptical of results
April 6, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
A recent survey conducted by the Hawai‘i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney showed residents were mostly aligned with prosecutors’ positions on a variety of topics, including harsher criminal penalties and adding more detention capacity, but some state officials are skeptical of the validity of its results.
The 13-question public survey — conducted from December through February — was answered by 674 people.
They were asked about their feels regarding harsher penalties for domestic abuse, fentanyl possession, lowering the blood alcohol content from .08 to .05 and bail for pretrial detainees.
“The purpose of the survey was to allow the public an opportunity to share and express themselves and the types of concerns they have about our criminal justice system,” said Hawai‘i County Prosecuting Attorney Kelden Waltjen. “The main thing I want to convey to lawmakers and leaders is the community is concerned about crime. They want something done. And they want to feel safe in their homes and in their communities.”
In an interview Tuesday, Third Circuit Chief Judge Robert Kim said the survey is a snapshot in time but it doesn’t address the resources needed to accomplish these goals.
Rep. David Tarnas, who serves as the Chair of the Hawai’i State House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, said the survey wasn’t randomized. He said people who participated in the survey supported the position of the prosecuting attorney’s office: being tougher on crime as well as other things.
However, Tarnas said, his constituents — residents of Hawī, Hala‘ula, Waimea, Makahalau, Waiki‘i, Waikōloa, Kawaihae and Māhukona — feel differently.
“My constituents are asking about overcrowded prisons,” Tarnas said. “My goal is to release non-violent drug offenders. We have to incorporate best practices for pretrial detention. There are so many people in jail because they missed their court date or for non-violent offenses.”
According to the survey, 76 percent of participants were against the automatic release of individuals charged with “non-violent” misdemeanor and/or felony offenses while 10 percent were for it.
Discussion of pretrial bail reform is in current discussions at the State Legislature and has been a hot topic since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the overcrowding of jails and prisons throughout the state into focus.
In August 2020, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court filed an order that allowed for the release of certain pretrial detainees charged with a misdemeanor or misdemeanor offenses to be released in order to avoid outbreaks.
“Judges are using overcrowding concerns to release criminals back into the community,” Waltjen said. “It’s not unusual for someone to get arrested two or three times in a week.”
Overcrowding has been an ongoing issue at Hawaiʻi Community Correctional Center in Hilo for years. Kim, who is the administrative judge for the Big Island, told Civil Beat “the conditions are atrocious,” after touring the facility in January.
According to the article, Kim recalled seeing about 30 inmates housed in a “dry room” with no toilets or running water: “Inmates have to knock on the doors to ask guards to take them to the bathroom.”
Because of the overcrowding conditions, Kim said he uses “cashless bail as much as I can,” meaning that he does not always require prisoners to post cash bail in order to win release.
“I encourage other judges to do the same,” he said.
According to the survey, the public is supportive of the relocation of the Hilo correctional center and also of building one in a new location in West Hawai‘i.
Waltjen agreed the current facility is limited about how it can be constructed: “We need to get more money and funding so we have more treatment on island as well as have improved facilities.”
Currently, Tarnas is supporting House Bill 1336, which incorporates different solutions for someone who needs substance abuse treatment or assistance with mental health.
One thing the bill prohibits is the arrest of a parolee if they test positive during a drug test. Tarnas also is supportive of expunging records of adults who are cannabis users.
“I have to be discerning,” Tarnas said as he reviews the needs of the prosecutor’s office and those of the community. “It’s a paradigm shift to do criminal justice reform.”
The other item Waltjen has been pushing, Tarnas said, is reducing the blood alcohol content level from .08 to .05, but there’s a lot of skepticism with that issue. In the survey, 47 percent said it should be lowered, but 37 percent said it should not and 16 percent were neutral.
While he’s not going to have a hearing on the matter this session, the lawmaker said he will honor the advocacy effort and spend time in the interim researching the matter.
Overall, the county’s top prosecutor hopes the data in the survey assists state lawmakers and county officials in advocating for the best interests of Hawai‘i Island.
Waltjen concedes the survey didn’t have a large number of participants and hopes that in the future more people will express their views in the annual questionnaires. But he thought it was an inexpensive way to get data and help the public voice their concerns.
“It was an outside-the-box idea,” he said, although adding: “I can’t force people to try to take the survey.”
Waltjen said he shared the questions with every state-elected official, Hawai‘i County Council, the Mayor’s Office and across all the prosecutor’s office’s social media platforms.
“It might not be 5,000 participants but can any one else point to a criminal initiative survey and look at the data,” he said.
The prosecuting attorney’s office conducted its first survey last year. Waltjen said it was instrumental in the passage of new legislation, including a class B felony offense for automobile and motorcycle theft and a new felony offense for dog attacks resulting in serious bodily injury or death.
Prosecutors 2023 Survey Results by Tiffany De Masters on Scribd