Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Candidate Steve Alm: 'Strike Hard Blows, But Not Foul Ones'

Jul 2, 2020

Honolulu voters will be choosing a new prosecutor this year after the current one stepped down in the wake of the Kealoha corruption scandal. HPR will be profiling the candidates running for the office until the August 8 primaries.

Steven Alm started his legal career in 1985, as a director at the Honolulu Prosecutor's office. He oversaw its district and family court division.

In 1994, he was tapped to be U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaiʻi. As a federal prosecutor, he investigated and prosecuted political corruption, drug trafficking and organized crime.

In 2001, he became a judge in Honolulu's First Circuit Court, where he spent the next 15 years overseeing a variety of cases.

Alm now has his sights set on the city prosecutor's office.

"I feel a sense of obligation to that office," he said. "I started there. And in the last year, I alternate between being embarrassed, being mad, being disappointed at what's been going on. So I want to go back there, and make things right."

If elected, Alm says one of his top priorities is to change the department's culture. Something, he says, is causing bigger problems for the office and the Honolulu's justice system.

"The public doesn't trust the office. The police have problems with it. The other agencies have trouble working with it because it has not wanted to really collaborate with a lot of people for a long time," Alm said.

"I'll be able to start dealing with things, cleaning the office up, making changes from Day One. This is too serious for on-the-job training."

Alm says he would create a culture of doing justice, not just winning cases. For that to happen, he believes the department needs to not only work collaboratively with other agencies, but also do justice. That means the prosecutor needs to be fair -- or as he says "strike hard blows, but not foul ones."

Alm thinks the department has lost sight of that, and it partly has to do with the training of deputy prosecutors.

"The office [has] this kind of history of micromanaging when people get four or five/six years there. And so they end up quitting because they can't stand that, as I understand," he said.

"But that means the deputies get moved through the office too quickly, and they're not getting enough training, and are not prepared enough to be sucessful at trial. And if you can build a culture of doing the right thing, but also to be skillful to enjoy your work, you're going to win more cases and you can make plea agreements from a position of strength."

Alm says his experience and success as a former prosecutor and judge gives him the experience and background to improve the department, and spearhead change. 

As U.S. Attorney, Alm points to the Weed & Seed effort -- where he coordinated law enforcement and social service providers to help reduce crime in the Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama areas.

"By working together, we reduced crime by 70% in three years," he said.

"It changed the character of those two neighborhoods. Before that local people were afraid to park their cars in Chinatown [and] walk around because they could get assaulted, [or their] car might get vandalized. When we did that, it became safe and made it safe for all these businesses to open up."

Alm says when he left the U.S. Attorney's office, the crime rate and homelessness in the areas started to tick back up.

"But if I get in, we will reinvigorate that [effort] and proceed to get those communities safe. Then we'll move onto Ala Moana and Kakaʻako, and hopefully onto Waikīkī. So it's real crime reduction that the public will be able to see."

As a judge, he founded a probation program called HOPE, or Hawaiʻi's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement, in 2004. It gives offenders simple rules to follow, and provides equal and consistent consequences for violations. The goal is to reduce probation violations by drug offenders and others at high risk of recividism.

Alm says the program isn't perfect, but it does make a difference.

"We've had top quality research from Pepperdine and UCLA, that people in HOPE, compared to probation as usual, test positive (for drugs) 72% less often. They get arrested for new crimes 55% less often. And they got to prison for 48% fewer days," he said.

Alm says the only reason HOPE works is because the defendants feel they are being treated fairly.

Since its creation, Hawaiʻi and 32 other states have adopted or use some form of the program.

"HOPE is that rare criminal justice strategy that reduces victimization in crime, it helps offenders because they can succeed on probation and avoid going to prison, and it saves taxpayers millions of dollars."

Alm says he's a big supporter of rehabilitation and diversion programs, and is willing to explore new options for criminal justice reform. He says he will make the office more transparent and is willing to discuss new programs with the public.

But Alm adds that he supports things that have a proven track record.