HONOLULU (KHON2) — Crime victims and witnesses fear suspects are growing more brazen, under a catch-and-release policy that many say has turned parts of Honolulu into lost and lawless zones.

Always Investigating found out COVID-era policies have converged to create a revolving door where suspects are often back on the street within hours of an arrest, and victims say they are striking again and again.

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John Fielding is a longtime Catholic church and Boy Scouts volunteer in the heart of downtown Honolulu, where catering to those in need is a core mission. But Fielding says a COVID crime, drug and vandalism wave downtown has pushed even the most compassionate to the breaking point.

“They’re getting arrested for drug dealing or even assault, and I see them back on the streets within an hour or two,” says Fielding, who is also an executive with a major downtown staffing firm, “because they cannot be held.”

They cannot be held, police told him, because the Honolulu Office of the Prosecuting Attorney told police let them go.

“According to a number of the police officers that I talked to,” Fielding said, “their hands are tied with the prosecuting attorney’s office that nothing’s happening.”

Police can only hold people for a maximum of 48 hours, or they’ve got to release pending investigation, called RPI. Sources showed me a Prosector’s Office memo from last year that limited charging while in police custody to suspects considered dangerous, a career criminal or pre-trial felon, or someone on a crime spree. Assaults on law enforcement officers will get a custody charge, as will burglaries involving dwellings, elders, romantic partners or sex assaults. Anything else will be release pending investigation.

HPD acknowledged in a statement that, “Last summer the acting prosecutor narrowed the categories of suspects who should be detained.”

Always Investigating asked Steve Alm, who took over as prosecutor in January, what’s going on?

“It wasn’t my administration to put out any change in procedures,” Alm explained. “This was done last year, in response to COVID and trying to decide which cases are really high public safety matters.”

Alm says there was domino effect after last year’s Supreme Court order to release certain defendants from incarceration and reduce the population behind bars due to COVID risk.

“What I’m hoping is as people get vaccinated, we’ll be able to convince the court to hold more people in custody at OCCC, pending their trials,” Alm said. “The memo only refers to which cases are going to be people are going to be held in custody. So we are continuing to charge all of these cases where we think the person has committed a felony.”

HPD told Always Investigating in a statement: “Our detectives work hard to present cases that will result in charges.”

Meanwhile victims worry about suspects who didn’t used to get released quite as quickly. Besides more assault and domestic-violence quick-releases, victims have seen a slew of vandalism and burglary encores. Second degree burglary — that’s anything not involving a home — has mostly been RPI’d, so that’s any business, church or nonprofit. Longtime downtown and Chinatown area business owners say they have never seen the area so bad.

“Downtown is like the wild wild west right now,” Fielding said. “When I talk to these criminals, they tell me, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re okay. We’ll be out in a few hours.’ They know that. They know that they can’t be held. I had another person who told me, ‘I’ll see you in a few hours,’ and I was like, oh my gosh, you know, what am I supposed to do?”

He’s far from alone. A victim’s poll on Stolen Stuff Hawaii’s Facebook page yielded hundreds more with the same concern: victims whose suspects were RPI’d. The pending investigation and prosecution? Still in the pending pile.

“What they’re seeing is that the criminals that are involved in their cases are not being charged,” said Stolen Stuff Hawaii moderator Michael Kitchens. “They’re not being held accountable. We’re seeing multiple people being victimized by the same people over and over again.”

Coming up this week as always investigating follows up:

  • Changes the new prosecutor is making to get tougher on crime.
  • A weed-and-seed program may be in store for downtown.
  • The lingering impact of a Judiciary and jury trial backlog, a freeze on bench warrants, parole violations and drug testing.