HILO — On Dec. 3, Mitch Roth will becoming Hawaii County’s first new elected prosecutor in a generation, having won a General Election nail-biter over county Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida.
The 48-year-old Roth takes over from Charlene Iboshi, who is retiring at the end of the month. Iboshi, a longtime first deputy, took over the office when former Jay Kimura, who served as elected prosecutor for almost two decades, retired in April 2011. Roth has been a deputy prosecutor for 19 years, five in Honolulu and 14 on the Big Island.
“I’ve worked in Honolulu, and I’ve worked here as a prosecutor, and I’ll say this: Our worst day here was better than the best days in Honolulu,” Roth said Tuesday. “We have a great family of people. I love the people in this office.”
He also praised Iboshi for her skill as a prosecutor, a grant writer and “a mother figure” to many who work for her.
“What I know about Charlene is that she has a heart of gold,” Roth said. “I may not always agree with her, but I know that she’s always had my best interest and the interest of those who work in the office and the office itself in mind.”
Roth will assume control of an office where numerous employees, including deputies, worked and campaigned for Ashida, while others supported his election bid. He said political patronage isn’t an issue, and he won’t ask for courtesy letters of resignation — a standard practice after elections in some offices. He did, however, say he asked employees to submit letters stating why they’d like to continue working there.
“One of the things I’ve asked the deputies to do is to give me a statement about their philosophy of what their job is,” he said. “I didn’t tell them my philosophy. My philosophy is that we’re doing God’s work to ensure justice. … I want us to do the best job we can, so the people of our community are safe and healthy.”
Roth said he wants a healthy work environment.
“In the criminal justice system, it’s really easy to be cynical,” he said. “A lot of times, we go into court hoping to get big sentences, and we sometimes find out that the judge has a different view than we do. … And it’s real easy to get cynical, because you want more, but the system can’t handle more, oftentimes.”
Roth helped procure a Weed and Seed grant widely credited for cleaning up Pahoa. He’s the first prosecutor to use the state’s nuisance abatement law to close down drug houses and was granted an injunction to keep one individual reputed to be a drug dealer out of Pahoa. He was on the task force that drafted the state’s ignition interlock law for drunken driving cases, and helped to pass the county ordinance known as “Aliyah’s Law” — named after Aliyah Braden, a 17-month-old Kona girl killed by a drunken driver. That law allows police to have the vehicles of drunken drivers and those driving illegally to be towed and impounded.
One of Roth’s campaign pledges was to look at unsolved murders, which have no statute of limitations, “with fresh eyes.”
Paul Dolan, a third candidate, received about 17 percent of the vote in the primary, largely on his promise not to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. Roth made no such promise, but said it doesn’t make sense to make stand-alone misdemeanor pot possession cases a priority.
“I’d put a guesstimate that about 90 percent of those cases are hooked up with methamphetamine cases,” Roth said. “Almost every single methamphetamine case is gonna have marijuana. … Someone explained this to me, from the Dolan camp, and it made so much sense. Meth takes you up and marijuana mellows you out. And that’s why there are so many of these cases.”
Roth said there is “absolutely a correlation” between methamphetamine use and property crimes.
“You think about people who have a $150 to $300 a day methamphetamine habit. Where are they gonna get the money?,” he asked. “People are breaking into houses to feed their addiction. That’s why we’re going after drug houses to shut them down.”
Roth praised the HOPE Probation program, which requires high-risk probationers to check in daily and submit to frequent drug tests and Puuhonua, which uses Hawaiian cultural philosophies such as hooponopono, or restorative mediation, as alternatives to prison.
“If your only solution is a hammer, all your problems are nails,” he said. “And if your only solution is a jail cell and you don’t have enough jail cells, what do you do? Rather than complain about it, let’s find solutions.”