Hawaii Measure Aims To Encourage Guilty, No Contest Pleas In Domestic Violence Cases

Jan 23, 2020

Advocates for victims in Hawaii domestic violence cases are backing a proposal to reduce certain domestic violence cases from felonies to misdemeanors.

The state’s bipartisan women’s legislative caucus, focusing on domestic violence this session, is supporting the measure to address long delays in prosecuting domestic violence cases.

The system for prosecuting such cases is broken, according to Marci Lopes, the deputy director with the Domestic Violence Action Center. 

One women's caucus bill would make it easier to prosecute certain domestic violence cases as misdemeanors. The change would speed up the conviction and sentencing of offenders by giving the defendants incentives to plead guilty or no contest to the charges.

Offenders can receive deferred sentences under the proposal if they comply with stipulations from the court, such as completing a domestic violence intervention program.

It would be a misdemeanor for a person to intentionally strike a family or household member-- but a felony if the physical abuse involved an attempt to strangle the victim or there was a minor present.

Puna state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura introduced the bill. She says when abusers ask for a jury trial, the process takes longer, putting a burden on abuse victims.

“If the victim fails to show up twice in a row, what prosecutors tell me is those cases are being dismissed without prejudice, which means they can be refiled but the process goes all over again,” she said. “The idea behind what we’re trying to do is to give them a carrot to allow them to still be in the system but not require the victim to show up in every instance.”

A 2017 city audit found less than 10 percent of Oahu domestic violence cases are successfully prosecuted.

“Research tells us that we get the best results from addressing this very complex issue of intimate partner violence, when we have swift and immediate consequences,” said Lopes with the Domestic Violence Action Center. “With a system that's broken, we're having abusers who aren't getting ordered to better intervention or getting any treatment at all.”

Both San Buenaventura and Lopes both say intervention programs are better at rehabilitating offenders than prison time.

A similar measure was introduced last legislative session by state Sen. Laura Thielen, but did not pass.

While the Honolulu Police Department, state Attorney General and Office of the Public Defender supported the bill, officials sought amendments. Some have been incorporated into San Buenaventura's measure.

Other domestic violence initiatives planned by the women’s caucus would limit legal delays when domestic violence victims seek temporary restraining orders against their abusers.

Lopes said one improvement that she would like to see is more domestic violence training for police officers.

“We’re often in the middle of the police and prosecutor’s office so we hear from prosecutors that the police aren’t writing good enough reports so they can’t charge cases,” she said. “Then we hear frustration from (the Honolulu Police Department) that they are arresting people and they’re doing reports as best they can, but prosecutors’ offices aren’t charging.”