HILO — South Kona’s recent spate of burglaries provided ample fodder for debate and marked a bright line between philosophies when the two candidates for prosecuting attorney faced off Friday at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Mitch Roth, a nine-year deputy prosecutor, says limited prison space and limited resources mean the Prosecutor’s Office needs to “think smarter, not just tougher.” Preventing crimes cuts the number of tragic deaths, and leaves prison space for serious offenders, he says.
Lincoln Ashida, who as Corporation Counsel is currently the county’s top civil attorney, and is a former 13-year deputy prosecutor, takes a more aggressive approach.
The Prosecutor’s Office, said Ashida, needs to get back to basics. With 80 percent of crimes being committed by 20 percent of offenders, it’s important to deal with those offenders expediently and efficiently, he said.
“We’re not just talking about programs that reduce crimes in our neighborhoods,” said Ashida. “It’s about arresting those responsible and putting them in prison. It’s about community protection.”
Roth was not to be persuaded.
A community-oriented prosecution plan that closes down drug houses, prevents driving under the influence through education and employs devices such as ignition interlock systems and GPS ankle bracelets is the best approach, he said.
“It’s all of our responsibilities. You can reduce the amount of burglaries through community programs,” Roth said, citing successful programs in Leilani Estates and Hawaii Ocean View Estates.
“If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems are nails,” he said. “We just can’t look and say the only thing we’re going to do as prosecutor is prosecute cases.”
Roth said limited jail space makes it more important than ever to work toward preventing crime.
“Our system is broken,” Roth said. “I do not want to put low-level offenders in prison to kick out the murderers, the rapists.”
Ashida said the solution isn’t that simple. He said more prison space, such as the state’s move to reopen Kulani Correctional Facility near Hilo, could protect the community by getting dangerous criminals off the street.
“Crime will happen,” Ashida said. “I don’t think it’s right to say, ‘Well, we’re running out of prison space, so we’ll have to quit putting people there.’”
Big Island police last week arrested 10 suspects in connection with a rash of break-ins of homes and cars. Police have said the burglaries are connected with a crystal meth ring, which looks for gold and jewelry to sell to gold dealers and pawn shops.
Crime escalated to such an extent that the police held a neighborhood meeting, worked more closely with Neighborhood Watch groups and beefed up police presence on the west side of the island. Police continue to urge people to photograph and make records of their jewelry, in case it gets stolen.
“There was a 300 percent increase in property crimes,” Assistant Chief Paul Kealoha reported to the county Police Commission earlier this month. “We learned something from that. We need to enlist the public’s help when possible.”
Many of the arrests resulted from tips from the community, he said.
“We’ve been chasing these guys for a while,” he said.
“The community wants to help,” said Chief Harry Kubojiri. “It wants to be part of the solution.