Fewer criminal cases taken to court statewide

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Do the crime, do the time? Far from it.

In every county statewide, a suspect busted on the street is increasingly less likely to come before a judge and jury.

We found the number of criminal cases filed in every circuit statewide has plummeted. The rate of convictions is up, but public safety advocates and lawmakers say the trend sends the wrong message to victims and offenders.

Always Investigating analyzed a decade of criminal and court records and found the number of cases charged and taken to court has plummeted 21 percent in the past decade, by a range of 17 percent fewer criminal cases charged on Oahu to a decline of 41 percent fewer on Kauai. Crime rates, according to annual state- and FBI-compiled data, are down over the period but not by nearly as much; violent crime for instance is down about 8 percent over the decade.

Circuit and District Courts. Source: Hawaii State Judiciary

Always Investigating asked all county prosecutors for a response. Kauai Prosecutor Justin Kollar told us: “Part of the decline is certainly attributable to an overall decline in crime in Hawaii over the past decade, as statistics maintained by the Attorney General indicate. In other areas, such as juvenile justice, the decline is the result of a nationwide trend to handle youthful offenders outside the criminal justice system. Changes to the law and court rulings also affect how and when prosecutors charge certain types of cases. There’s no simple answer.”

Many things have watered down what is taken to court as a criminal case over the years: drug decriminalization, classifying more crimes as misdemeanors instead, raising the dollar threshold for what constitutes felony theft, or appeals-court rulings on admissible evidence all bend the odds in an offender’s favor. But victims and lawmakers want to weed out if prosecutors take only the slam-dunk cases.

For those cases that do get filed with the Judiciary, conviction rates are up. Prosecutors are winning anywhere from 4- to 6-in-10 cases, where it used to be as low as a 19 percent conviction rate a decade ago.

Source: Hawaii State Judiciary

“You have got to ask, if the success rate is going up, it’s like a lot of things,” Nishihara said. “If you want to increase your success rate you don’t take the ones that are iffy, you take the ones that are more likely you can get a jury to convict.”

“From the victim’s standpoint they want to know if someone was arrested and the evidence is not 100%, it’s maybe 85-90%, I think victims still want to see those cases pursued in the interest of justice,” said Rep. Gregg Takayama, chairman of the House Committee on Public Safety, Veterans & Military Affairs.

Always Investigating asked, “Is there a solution for it, then can hold everybody along that chain of command more accountable for taking a case as it was really happening on the street and charging it that way in court?

“It’s got to be a combination of things,” explained Phillip Lavarias, a retired Honolulu Police Department detective. “The people have to call 911, they have to report the incidents to police. Next, the police officers have to investigate it thoroughly, and then when it’s brought to the prosecutor’s office has to take some chances and maybe take some cases that may not look the greatest. That’s the best thing they can do to stop this because it creates a total environment of where the criminals don’t fear being prosecuted.”

Always Investigating looked at the Honolulu robbery cases from the summer and the recent crime spike on Oahu. Back in August, there were 75 robbery reports, with 11 arrests by police and 9 charges by prosecutors. In December, the robbery cases jumped up to 90 reports, but there were just 14 arrests and 14 charges.

Prosecutor’s screening may reject a case, or criminal charges could be reduced or amended.

The Honolulu Police Department points out some of the recent robbery arrests have been given right to the feds to get tougher charges, or police get them off the street on a different type of criminal charge.

“Some individuals who are linked to robberies are arrested for other crimes, such as assault or theft,” said HPD spokesperson Michelle Yu. “While they are not arrested for robbery, their arrests have helped to reduce crime.”

“Robbery investigations are often difficult and challenging,” Yu added, “primarily due to the difficulty in identifying suspects, and arrests are made in 10 to 15 percent of robbery cases.”

The steady decline we found in all kinds of criminal cases making it to a courthouse has lawmakers asking questions.

“The only thing we can do is probably hold hearings and say bring the stats and bring the cases that you have,” Nishihara said. “Let’s see why is it we have this disparity in this. I think that might give us a clearer idea what’s going on.”

“We need to look into this further because what we certainly don’t want to see happen is have police take good arrests to the prosecutor’s office and prosecutors choose not to pursue them for whatever reason, even if it’s on borderline cases,” Takayama said. “I think it’s serious enough, the crime situation, that we ought to take a good look at whether we’re missing some cases or whether we’re just not taking the chances we should be.”

“At the county levels, when the prosecutor’s office comes before the county councils for budgets, they ought to look carefully at what the budgets are used for,” Takayama said. “at the legislative level I think we’ll take a look at the possibility of whether all our state laws are being clearly enough enforced.”

Prosecutors and police are calling for tougher penalties and a reversal in the legislative trend of decriminalization, stop upping thresholds on misdemeanor versus felony theft, and close evidence and suspect-excuse loopholes that make it especially hard to prosecute car thefts. Lawmakers also want to send a message to would-be criminals that the community is fed up.

“What most alarms me is the recent cases in which seniors have been targeted as victims, and we’re talking everything from purse snatchings to robberies to home invasions,” Takayama said, “So one of the bills I’m introducing as co-chair of the kupuna caucus is a bill that toughens penalties offenders who prey on seniors. We’re making the age of seniority 60. If it was a misdemeanor now it would be felony, a felony carrying the threat of hard time. We hope this sends a message to offenders that they should not be preying on the most vulnerable people in our society, our seniors.”

“Individuals aren’t seeing justice to the case and the crime that happened to them, so in the long run it affects the reporting of these crimes or people’s perception of law enforcement in general,” Lavarias said. “It’s going to keep on occurring and occurring because the criminals see it’s more beneficial to steal and do these crimes than follow the rules.”

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