Race of the Year
This is the second in a two-part series on the two candidates for County Prosecutor, incumbent Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho and challenger Justin Kollar, based on their interviews with MidWeek Kaua‘i journalists Amanda Gregg and Coco Zickos, and editor Don Chapman. We hope you’ll read through their responses, and then on Nov. 6 — or before — cast your ballot. As noted last week, these are very different people and candidates.
Please talk about the rights of taxpayers, of victims’ families. You yourself had a crime happen in your family when you were younger, but there are a lot of people you have to honor when you’re a prosecutor — including families who have lost loved ones and haven’t had an arrest made. If elected, what would you do to serve that part of the community?
J.K.: When I was 12, my uncle was murdered by people who were burglarizing his house because they thought he had drugs. He came home and interrupted them, and was shot in the back and killed. They found the guys who did it, put them in jail, but years later their convictions were overturned because the judge made a very serious mistake in the case. And that put my family through a second period of victimization, where we had to live knowing that, first, this had happened to us and, second, the justice system failed us. So that is a big part of where I get my fire and passion to make sure that we have a criminal justice system that works for everyone in the community, especially the people who have been victimized by crime. Here on Kaua‘i, we have had a number of unsolved homicides over the past several years — Sandy Galas and Amber Jackson come to mind. These are crimes that the community will not forget, and they shake the public’s confidence in the justice system.
As prosecutor I will work to bring whatever resources we can bring, and the prosecutor’s office has access to a lot of resources. We will bring in investigators from outside, we will bring in our KPD investigators, who are very talented and very hardworking. Maybe we put an attorney dedicated just to working the cold cases, because the prosecutor has a role in helping to coordinate the investigation and moving toward arrests, indictments, resolution. When I wake up in the morning sometimes, I still think about my uncle, and how much he meant to me, and how that crime changed my family, my life forever. I can never put myself in their shoes — but I understand some of the pain they’re going through, and I will never forget that, and I will never not honor that. So it is question of priorities. For me, cold cases — and that is almost a meaningless term — but unsolved homicides, specifically will be a focus of my administration.
How will you tackle the problem of the current 10 unsolved murders we have?
S. I.-C.: The first thing we did was try to get a specialized unit for funding because having consultants is not part of our budget. So we sought from the attorney general a grant that gave us $100,000. We (prosecutors and with KPD) just returned from New York where we were able to consult with and meet with the top forensic people on homicide. That is the difference in what has changed. With any homicide detective training, prosecutors will go with the detective on a National District Attorney Association training. We have KPD personnel come because, at least before this new chief, police officers used to only get “probable cause” because you can make an arrest on probable cause, but you cannot get a conviction on probable cause. So a lot of times what the police will do is arrest, but then we can’t prosecute. But there are two totally different standards. “Truth beyond a reasonable doubt” is somewhere up in the 90-plus percent that you’ve got to prove them guilty. When you are talking about probable cause, it’s 51 versus 49, so the standards are very different.
Now, with the collaboration of the training, KPD sees why its role is important in seeking proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They’re going that extra step and they’re not taking verbal statements, they’re taking tape-recorded or written statements, including multiple witnesses. Because in most cases you have your victim, but when you want proof beyond a reasonable doubt case, you want to interview everybody else. So they will now canvas the areas to get multiple types of independent witnesses who will seal the case on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, instead of just taking one’s word against the other.
So we’ve made a lot of changes in evidence collection. We’ve gone to many trainings within the last two years, where the police and prosecutor will go together so they can understand each other’s role. For example, especially with car break-ins, a lot of times when we have these cases they determine the car was broken into and they determine somebody did it, but let’s say three people took turns — but as long as they get one person, they would just turn them in, whereas now if there were two other people in the car, did they also participate in driving that vehicle? So they’ll take that extra step. Before when they stopped, for example, on a traffic case and they see marijuana, they say, ‘Well, it’s just marijuana, I’m not going to get a search warrant for that, that will take me too much time.’ We now convince them that a lot of times marijuana is a gateway drug and they’re probably going to find ice or something else. Even if it’s a traffic stop and you only saw marijuana, seize that vehicle and go in and get a search warrant, you might find firearms. So they are taking these bold steps where previously they weren’t. We meet with the detectives on a daily basis, they call us all the time, we’re available 24/7, the relationship is excellent. On any follow-ups that are done, it’s immediate, whereas before it would go into some black hole.
And the police have been, because of the cooperation and collaboration, and the trust by the chief, his deputy chief and assistant chief, whatever we say, there is not this back and forth. Now that they’ve gone through the prosecutor training, they know about getting proof beyond a reasonable doubt evidence.
We send out a lot of things for DNA testing, which we never used to do. A lot of times there have been cost issues, but now if the prosecutor wants that sent out, we’ll find the funding to make sure that item gets tested. That kind of relationship is perfect in a place like this where you have limited resources, especially funding resources, and it all benefits victims.
Do you foresee, if reelected, the ability to move forward with these cases?
S. I.-C.: That is the reason people should re-elect me. With the creation of this cold case unit, they put the best homicide detectives — they’ve actually pulled them off the regular case loads. We have two experienced detectives working solely on these cases. We also meet every month on all of these cases on their progress, and there is a discussion. There is total collaboration — the assistant chief, the lieutenant, the homicide detective, myself and first deputy Jake Delaplane and the grant coordinator. I’ve put aside (funds) for these consultants, like Dr. Henry Lee, he’s like the top in the field. I got to meet him and talk to him at the training, and he wants to help us. Dr. Baden is another forensic pathologist, he just did the (Drew) Peterson case, the Jonbenet Ramsey case, and he did the Medgar Evers case where they exhumed the body 31 years later. Those are the kinds of experts that before we didn’t know about … From this training, we’re getting all these experts together to do a roundtable discussion on what we have as far as what we’ve collected and see if there are any more things that we need to collect and where to send them.
What do you think is the biggest challenge you will face if elected, and how would you handle that challenge?
J.K.:There are two things: There is the internal challenge of running the office, morale building, team building, and that is going to take some time. I think it is something that, the first day or week in there, we need to get together and do some team building, and if that means we bring in Sherri Patrick from Leadership Kaua‘i for a team-building exercise, or whatever that might take, there is an internal challenge with morale.
Then there is the external challenge of dealing with ongoing crime problems in the community. We’ve got property crimes happening right now, and a significant drug problem, a crystal methamphetamine problem, and a growing problem with abuse of prescription medications that are closely tied to property crime here. In dealing with those core law enforcement issues, it comes to building effective relationships with places like Drug Court, with people like Theresa Koki at Life’s Choices Kaua‘i … If you can get to a 15-year-old kid and solve their addiction with treatment or counseling or some kind of intervention program, you’re going to save the community so much down the road in terms of law enforcement, courtroom time, trials and sentencing people to prison. It is more cost-effective and better for the community if you get to these people younger. It starts on day one. You go in there and start working as hard as you can to make these things happen. You want reductions in drug use and property crime. We are going to meet with every community group we can.
We are going to meet with seniors, we are going to meet with neighborhood associations. We are going to listen and then say, ‘these are our priorities.’ Deputies, these are the cases we want to push forward in court. Police, these are the kind of cases the public is concerned about, so please work on these cases. Give us these cases, and we will do everything we can to push forward. And in the first six months we’ll meet with everyone we can on the island and our stake-holders in the law enforcement community. It comes down to building those partnerships, and it has to happen on day one, and on day one we will be ready to go.
What about diversionary programs?
S. I.-C.: The reason it’s really important to have the kind of experience I have is that you’re able to think outside of the box and look outside of doing the same old, same old. We recommend the Keiki Pohaku Program as a diversionary program. There has been a lot of political discussion regarding it. That committee, which is made up of the sheriff, the Kaua‘i Police Department, Life’s Choices, the Department of Defense, it was unanimous in that room that they all supported that program, which allows a person, especially of a low-level misdemeanor, to avoid prison and probation time if they attend these personal responsibilities classes and give back to the community. The community service is done through what we call restorative justice, which means you do your community service in the area that you committed the offense. If you vandalize a bathroom in Kealia, then we would send you there to do your community service. One of the problems here is that because there have not been any resources in the judiciary, they’ve actually cut community service programs — which means the only options are prison or you go to pay your fine, and most of these people aren’t able to avoid that. So we’re sending a lot more people to prison than we’d like — a lot more nonviolent offenders — and that’s where we’ve got to concentrate our resources in nonviolent offenders not being in prison but being productive. If they do that, we also have a component that is a culturally based restorative justice … When we first started these programs, we had about 150 vendors who came out and said, ‘We want to teach them how to grow organic plants, how to go fishing, how to throw a net, how to use plants in the environment for medicinal value.’ We had these different types of programs that people could sign up for — it wasn’t meant to be punitive, it was meant to make that person be more productive and to learn new skills … When you impose conditions on defendants and you treat them like criminals as opposed to somebody who is capable of making good decisions, a lot of times they don’t comply …
That’s why you need to think outside of the box, instead of sending them to jail for every little thing, think, “How am I going to make this person better and make them feel like they belong to society?”
What are your thoughts regarding repeat offenders committing the same crimes like burglary that continue to cycle through the system multiple times, only to repeat the offense?
S. I.-C.: Repeat offenders are a serious concern in the community. There are many reasons these people keep getting arrested and released continually. One of the reasons is that the courts are seriously backlogged on Kaua‘i. In one courtroom, they are setting the trial dates four to five months down the line. We must bring a case to trial, whether it’s a traffic case, murder, assault — we only have 180 days, and the only time that can be waived is by the defendant when they ask for a continuance. We’ve seen a lot of times the defendants ask for a continuance because it’s in their best interest, because if you’re out of custody, you’re presumed innocent, so a lot of times we request bail that is set at very high amounts.
I’ve seen a guy on the island who doesn’t work post almost $100,000 bail — it’s just amazing to me that people of this kind of background are able to get this kind of money. And because the courts are clogged, they don’t get their cases for another six months, so they go back in the community and they post bail again. We work really hard to revoke those persons’ bail, but it’s a rarity because the system is clogged and the jails are overfull. We are supposed to be housing like 120 at KCCC, most of the time it’s 147 or even higher because our jail houses not only misdemeanors, but also houses detainees for anything — traffic cases, sex assaults, murders — and that causes a huge problem.
When you have people incarcerated in a low-minimum security system like this, when you have somebody in driving without a license case who goes to jail for a year in the same cell as a person who’s awaiting their trial on murder or robbery, studies have shown that when you mix a high-risk person with a low-risk person, guess what’s going to happen to the low-risk person? They will learn all the tools of the trade and become a high-risk person. And that’s what we’re seeing — these low-risk people have now matriculated and are coming in for felonies. This is a huge problem. We pay for any person in prison approximately $150 a day, and that’s without any medical care. If you’ve got somebody with diabetes, cancer, any other kind of issues, we — the taxpayers — pay all the medical, which equates to about $51,000 a year in the state … Nobody wants a new prison in their neighborhood, but we’ve reached the point where there is so much crime that there has to be some separation between low-level offenders and high offenders, because especially on Kaua‘i that’s a major problem.
Government and politics aren’t the nicest words these days, yet you’re hoping to jump in. Why?
J.K.: My initials are JFK, and that wasn’t an accident. My parents raised me believing that government can be good, that public servants can do good work, that public servants can do noble and honorable things. I spent the past decade of my career in public service with the city of Boston, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, with our Hawaii judiciary and with the county prosecutor’s office and now county attorney’s office.
I’ve seen good public servants and bad public servants. I know I can be a good public servant. It can be thankless; people think you make too much, you don’t do enough, there is no shortage of people with opinions. But that is part of the territory. You have to have thick skin, have to take hits and explain what you’re doing. These are the positive things we’re trying to do.
I find a lot of reward in serving the public. It isn’t as lucrative as the private sector, but I sleep well at night knowing I’m on the good guys’ side.
To me, the prosecutor’s office is very important in protecting the public and keeping it safe. We are the ones who take the cases from the police and ensure that justice results. Equal justice is one of the most important principles in our democracy. It is what sets us apart from other countries. It is one of the things that makes us special as a people.
So, to me, I derive a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction knowing I’m working for that.