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Honolulu Prosecutor Candidate Jacquie Esser: 'Minor Reforms Are Not Enough' In Fixing Justice System

Jacquie Esser

Honolulu voters get to choose a new prosecutor this year and HPR will be profiling the major candidates running for the office ahead of the Aug. 8 primary election. Here's a look at Jacquie Esser.

Jacquie Esser has been a deputy public defender for more than a decade, arguing on the opposite side of prosecutors. Throughout her career, she says she's advocated for reforms in the criminal justice system.

Esser says she has been on the frontline, witnessing the impacts the system has had on local families and communities. And that's why she's running for city prosecutor.

"I have seen how prosecutors have been destroying lives, families, communities -- wasting millions of our dollars, and have failed to make us safe. So it's time we truly start investing in our communities and crime prevention, and stop investing in our jails and prisons," said Esser.

If elected, Esser says her priorities would be to improve public safety by implementing criminal justice reforms. She says a lot could be done on the first day, but, overall, she would like to provide more support to victims and rehabilitate those entering the system.

One reform she believes will go a long way to creating a fairer justice system is the end of cash bail.

"Money bail creates two systems of justice. One for the rich, and one for the poor," she said. "There is something seriously wrong with the system that lets a rich, dangerous person buy their way out of jail, while a poor, innocent person sits in jail for months or years waiting for trial.

"It will be my policy that deputy prosecutors will never ask for money bail as a condition of their [defendants] detention. The issue and the question will become, 'Are you a significant risk or danger to the public? Or a material flight risk?' And if the answer to those questions are yes, then you are detained no matter how much money you have in your pocket."

Esser says similar reforms have been made in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston, and she says crime has declined as a result.

Esser is also calling for more transparency and accountability from the Honolulu Police Department. She says the community has the right to know if an officer has a history of misconduct.

She believes more transparency in the police department and prosecutor's office will restore the public's trust after the Kealoha corruption scandal.

"I will adopt the Prosecutor Transparency Act, and I will put all our major policies online. I will not operate the office like a black box, like it has been," she said. "I want a participatory system of justice, where people can call, they can share their concerns, and we can address them."

While she is critical of HPD, Esser is willing to work with the police department on its diversion and outreach programs, such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion -- or LEAD -- program. She says it's proven to lower crime, and it helps to connect those who are homeless, mentally ill or addicted to substances with the appropriate services.

But Esser notes that while the program is a good start, more can be done to expand the program and provide better wraparound services.

She says she looks forward to the day when -- if someone needs help because they are having a mental health crisis -- someone can be called and behavioral health doctors are sent out.

Esser says she's glad criminal justice reforms are being discussed in the prosecutor's race. But she believes the other candidates will not go far enough in changing what she calls a broken system.

"I've seen the failed tough on crime policies every single day, and the injustices that happen," Esser said. "We're failing crime victims, and we're failing the people who get caught up in the criminal justice system. We fail to meaningfully provide treatment to them, and they come back and back again.

"Minor reform is not enough -- we need fundamental, transformational reform to our system."

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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