Court backlogs, orders to minimize jail headcounts worsen ‘catch and release’ crime trend

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Always Investigating exposed how some COVID-era policies are putting many crime suspects back on the street within hours of an arrest on Monday, March 1. It is not just a police and prosecution issue, however.

Always Investigating follows up on other factors and possible solutions.

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Always Investigating has heard from multiple victims that police are saying there is often not much they can do besides release-pending-investigation (RPI). Always Investigating found out more about what is behind that trend.

“Criminals know that they’re not being charged,” said Michael Kitchens, moderator of the Stolen Stuff Hawaii group on Facebook. “And because of that they’re becoming more brazen, they’re starting to push the limits of what’s allowed.”

At the Honolulu Police Commission meeting on Wednesday, March 3, Honolulu Police Department (HPD) chief Susan Ballard addressed the “catch and release” issue that Always Investigating uncovered. Ballard pointed to the courts and jail system too, not just the charging thresholds set up by the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney in summer, 2020.

“They’re down in our cell block and then the judges come down and they look through the list and they release a lot of people back out instead of holding them on misdemeanors,” Ballard said, “So I think it’s a three-way street.”

Crime is on the uptick again after a lull at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns, but not nearly as bad as a violent crime spike before the pandemic. In 2019 and into 2020 prior to COVID-19, weekly reports of serious crimes were averaging 67 assaults, 68 burglaries and 15 robberies according to HPD’s crime-mapping website.

It is now averaging 33 assaults, 50 burglaries and 8 robberies per week.

Prosecutors say Hawaii Supreme Court-ordered COVID-19 limits on inmate populations mean they have to draw the line even more than usual on charging the most dangerous cases within 48 hours of arrest and still try to come back to the rest after they have been issued an RPI.

“I know people would love every case to be investigated and charged within 48 hours, but that is just not going to happen,” said Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm, who took over the office in January. “It’s not realistic. The detectives, the police budget, you’d have to increase it by 50% or whatever in order to have the police available to hold people in custody for that long. And believe me, a number of those cases, we’re never going to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Prosecutors will charge and head to court for those they think they can prove, but there is a huge backlog there with nearly 2,000 pending jury trials just in the First Circuit Court on Oahu alone.

A judiciary spokesperson told Always Investigating: “The Judiciary has not urged or directed prosecutors to charge fewer new cases, nor to review past cases to consider dropping or amending charges. The courts will ensure justice is administered according to the law, independent of any backlog.”

Courts are not not the only part of the criminal justice system hobbled in the pandemic

“You need a robust prison system, a jail system, in order to hold the people that need to be held in custody,” Alm said.

The Department of Public Safety spokesperson told KHON2: “The Department of Public Safety (PSD) is required to accept all offenders ordered to our custody by the courts and those returned from parole for alleged violations of the terms and conditions of their release. PSD will follow through with executing the court’s order, and will continue to make room for all new admissions sent to our custody, as has always been done.”

Alm said, COVID-19 has hampered parole and probation as well.

“Probation is not working right now, because they’re not being drug tested,” Alm said, “and so you’re not seeing violations. We’re very concerned that people are using drugs more. This may cause more crimes to get committed.”

Crime victims, residents and businesses say they see that in plain view every day — especially in Downtown and Chinatown

“They’re doing drugs and you see people selling drugs right in front of you, or shooting up,” said May Chen, owner of the Flower Fair store that has been a Fort Street staple for nearly five decades. “It gets worse and worse. It’s hard to do business like this. We even have old-timer customers concerned. They say, ‘Is it safe over here? I really do not feel comfortable walking to your shop anymore.’”

Honolulu’s prosecutor says he is looking at bringing the Weed and Seed program back to Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama.

“People are going to get arrested. In many cases, even if they get released, they’re going to be restricted from returning to the area,” Alm said. “They’ll be a arrested for setting foot in there. When we did this when I was the United States Attorney and we did the Weed and Seed effort, we reduce crime by 70 percent in Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama. We are looking at doing the same thing.”

Alm said, setting up Weed and Seed could take a few months. Victims of crimes by repeat offenders say change can not come soon enough.

“There comes a time where we have to suck it up and say, COVID or not, we have a duty to our people, a duty to our community,” Kitchens said, “and we need to take the reins and just get back to work.”

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