Federal immigration and drug prosecutions reflect Hawaii’s unique status as the country’s only island state as well as its prevalent problem with crystal methamphetamine, a Star-Advertiser analysis of federal sentencing statistics shows.
Compared with the national average, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Hawaii prosecutes a lower percentage of immigration cases, but a higher percentage of drug cases with the bulk of the prosecutions dealing with ice.
Federal officials agree that the lower percentage of immigration cases results because Hawaii is an island state, which makes it more difficult for aliens to illegally come here.
"We’re not a border state," First Assistant U.S. Public Defender Alexander Silvert said, noting that immigration cases are comparatively higher in Southwest border states dealing with illegal aliens from Mexico.
On the other hand, methamphetamine offenses remain a top priority as reflected by federal numbers that show 90 percent of the drug defendants sentenced last year were in ice cases.
The high numbers reflect the continuing concern over what law enforcement officials here consider the most insidious and dangerous of all illegal drugs.
"The violence associated with crystal methamphetamine far outweighs the other drugs combined," said Larry Burnett, director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program in Hawaii.
The statistics from the U.S. Sentencing Commission track the type of cases of defendants sentenced in federal courts around the country.
The sentencings generally occur months after the offenses are committed, but they still provide a window into the major issues facing U.S. attorneys in each state, according to Hawaii’s U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni, who heads an office of 27 assistant U.S. attorneys and about 45 staff members that prosecutes the federal criminal cases here.
The immigration and drug categories are the best indicators among the federal crimes that show the differences between Hawaii and the rest of the nation.
"We have a lot of flexibility in our individual districts to address what is important in our local communities," Nakakuni said.
Methamphetamine was introduced to Hawaii decades ago, hit its peak use around 2003 and 2004, tapered off, then hit a plateau in recent years, according to Burnett.
The numbers for drug cases reflect federal law enforcement’s high priority on ice cases here.
"We have to look at the market," said Robin Dinlocker, head of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Hawaii. "We’re going to look at the trends and we’re going to see what’s the biggest issue for that particular area and allocate our resources accordingly. And here in Hawaii, obviously, we see meth as an issue."
Drug prosecutions have generally been about 50 percent of the federal cases here, fueled by the higher percentage of ice cases.
Methamphetamine prosecutions increased from about half the drug prosecutions in the early 2000s to more than 80 percent in each of the past several years. Prosecutions reached a high of 90 percent last year.
In the past several years on the mainland, drug cases made up only about a third of federal prosecutions, according to the sentencing numbers. Of those cases, the emphasis was on powder and crack cocaine, which is considered more of a problem in other states. Cocaine cases made up nearly half of the drug prosecutions last year. Meth cases represented only about 17 percent.
In Hawaii, cocaine cases have represented the second-highest percentage of drug prosecutions, according to the commission figures.
Law enforcement officials acknowledge that other illegal drugs might be more widely used in Hawaii. Burnett said authorities last year seized ice with a wholesale value of about $6 million. The wholesale value of marijuana recovered last year was about $400 million.
But it’s the dangers associated with methamphetamine that make it the top priority, Burnett said, citing the horrific case of ice user Matthew Higa, who was convicted earlier this year of tossing a toddler off an H-1 freeway overpass in 2008.
Silvert said another reason for Hawaii’s high ice percentage is that local authorities send cases to federal court, where sentences can be harsher than state sentences. Unlike state prison terms, federal prison sentences do not have parole. Also, federal laws can provide for longer sentences for ice defendants with prior drug convictions.
Federal officials acknowledge that the sentencing differences may be a factor, but noted that federal drug enforcement agents work closely with police in deciding which prosecutors will handle the cases.
"I think the policy has been and will remain, whoever has the higher sentence will wind up with the case," Nakakuni said.
For immigration cases, it’s no surprise to Nakakuni and other federal officials that the Southwest states facing illegal immigrants from Mexico have a higher percentage of those prosecutions.
In Hawaii, immigration cases made up 11 percent of federal prosecutions. In Southwest states, immigration cases made up more than half of the prosecutions, according to the commission’s sentencing numbers for the 2009 fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
New Mexico was the highest with 77 percent, followed by Arizona and Texas, both with 58 percent. As might be expected, landlocked states had lower percentages, such as Oklahoma (5 percent) and Iowa (7 percent).
Silvert said because illegal aliens crossing the Canadian border are considered less of a problem, northern states had lower figures. Montana’s immigration percentage, for example, was 6 percent.