Alm vs. Kau: What Divides Candidates For Honolulu Prosecutor

Oct 1, 2020

Honolulu election officials should soon be mailing out ballots to Oʻahu voters. One of the races will decide Honolulu's next prosecutor. The two candidates in the running both have experience as prosecutors, but what sets them apart?

The once-crowded race for Honolulu prosecutor is now down to two candidates -- former judge Steve Alm and attorney Megan Kau.

Both started their legal career at the city prosecutor's office. And both decided to run for the seat following the Katherine Kealoha corruption scandal.

While Alm and Kau say their top priority is restoring public trust, they have different views on how to accomplish it.

Alm says he would change the department's culture; one where a higher ethical standard and "doing justice" are at its core. It would also include re-evaluating how the department handles case charging and plea agreements.

"We have to do justice, not just win cases," Alm said. "We have to bring in the right supervisors, be an experienced leader of an office -- I can hit the ground running."

In addition to that, Alm says the office would have to look at all the cases Kealoha touched, while looking for corruption and rooting it out.

Kau has stated she has helped federal prosecutors in their investigation of the Kealohas. She says there are still four deputy prosecutors at the office that helped Kealoha and city prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro in their misconduct.

"One of the main reasons why I ran is to end that corruption, and have those people terminated," she said. "Another reason why I ran is to fight for the victims of Honolulu.

"I'm involved with the criminal justice every day, and I see that nobody's really fighting for the victim. They're not guiding the victims through the justice system, and they're not educating the victims."

Alm and Kau both agree that improving deputy prosecutor training will help to change the office's culture, and move it into the future.

But they differ on the prosecutor's role in reforming the criminal justice system.

Law & Order v. HOPE Probation

Kau has been characterized as the "law and order" candidate. She says she accepts that role, because that is the job of the prosecutor.

"The prosecutor's job is to protect our community by objectively applying the criminal laws to anybody that violates the law," she said.

"Whether homeless or not homeless, rich or poor, local or not local. We cannot choose who we charge, or what crimes we charge, we have to enforce the law at all levels."

Kau believes a prosecutor can advise state and county lawmakers on policies, but they should not be active in system reform. However, she agrees on expanding current treatment and assistance programs for prisoners is sorely needed. But because most of these programs are privatized, it isn't the prosecutor's job to find ways to expand or improve them.

Alm, on the other hand, points to his experience in implementing programs to reduce crime rates and recidivism among probationers.

"Being a judge has given me a bigger picture of the whole system, and how to make it work better for identifying who really should go to prison," he said.

As a federal prosecutor, he implemented a "weed and seed" program that lowered crime in the Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama neighborhoods. He says that effort reduced crime in those areas by more than 70% in three years.

As a judge, he created the Hawaiʻi's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (or HOPE) program. It aims to reduce crime and drug use by giving offenders a chance to avoid prison as long as certain court mandated conditions are met.

"I believe HOPE probation works because probationers feel they are being treated fairly," Alm said.

Alm says he would encourage new programs to be developed and implemented, as long as there is data showing that it will work. He adds that he will work collaboratively with the state legislature and the city council to improve current laws.

COVID-19 Citations

COVID-19 will likely continue to have an impact on Honolulu's judicial system after the election. HPD issued tens of thousands of citations during the city's second lockdown -- adding more to the circuit court's backlog.

Both candidates say they are unsure how many citations will be contested -- resulting in the prosecutor's office trying the case.

Alm says he would ahve to look at every case the department is handling, in order to determine where the citations are in the office's priorities.

"It's a complicated business," he said. "You've got a lot of cases, the COVID crisis just makes it more of a challenge, but that office has always been about assessing what you have in front of you, and prioritizing the most serious, the most dangerous, cases to focus on."

Kau says she has been helping residents who have received a citation in her current capacity as a criminal defense lawyer. She believes there is a lack of probable cause for a majority of the citation cases she's handled.

But if elected as a prosecutor, Kau says she, too, would look at every case.

"But if there is, in fact, a lack of probable cause to determine whether or not this person has violated the laws, then the case has to be dismissed," Kau said.

"That's the law, whether you're a prosecutor, or a defense attorney, we all have to abide by the law and enforce the laws to promote justice."

Kau says she is concerned residents may not know that by paying the citation's fine, it is entering a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge -- permanently going on a person's record.

For more from the candidates, click the links to their campaign sites: