comscore 2020 Election: Jacquie Esser | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

2020 Election: Jacquie Esser

  • Jacquie Esser
Name on ballot:

Jacquie Esser

Running for:

Honolulu prosecuting attorney

Political party:


Campaign website:

Current occupation:

Attorney, Office of the Public Defender



Previous job history:

Law Clerk for Judge (now Justice) Michael D. Wilson, First Circuit Court, State of Hawai‘i.

Previous elected office, if any:


Please describe your qualifications to represent the people of Hawaii.

I am a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and the William S. Richardson School of Law. I am a mother, a lawyer, and for the past 10 years I have been a public defender representing people who cannot afford a lawyer. My experiences on the front line of our criminal justice system for the past decade have given me a unique perspective on how the system is failing the people of Honolulu. I have seen how it punishes offenders without rehabilitating them, and adds to the trauma of crime victims without helping them heal.

I am part of a new generation of lawyers who understand that we are safer when we invest in housing and treatment for people with mental illness and substance use disorders rather than investing in jails and prisons. I have a vision of a prosecutor’s office that is compassionate and fair to everyone regardless of class and color. I have put forward a set of new ideas and policies that will restore trust in the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, reduce crime, and make our communities safer.

What will be your top priority if elected?

Redefining the role of the prosecuting attorney. For the past 40 years prosecutors have been convicting people and locking them up in ever increasing numbers, but that hasn’t made our communities safe. In fact, most people feel less safe today than ever before. We need a new approach to prosecution–one that addresses the root causes of crime, not just the symptoms. We need a new and more sustainable correctional model that reduces our reliance on incarceration and focuses on building communities where our families are safe and children can thrive. We have to invest in crime prevention instead of always dealing with the tragic aftermath of crime, and we need a system that rehabilitates people caught up in the criminal legal system instead of turning them into hardened criminals. The Prosecutor’s Office should also allocate more resources to ensure that the needs of crime victims are being met. And finally, we must stop treating poverty, houselessness, substance use disorder and mental illness as crimes and recognize them for what they are: complex social, economic, and public health issues that require long term solutions.

Of course, to accomplish these goals, we must root out corruption in the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. I will eliminate corruption and enforce high ethical standards.

Did you support the release of some inmates to fight the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails? Please explain.

Yes. All five justices of the Hawai‘i Supreme Court recognized that physical distancing is impossible in our overcrowded jails, and therefore reducing the jail population was a necessary precaution to militate against a COVID-19 outbreak that could easily spread from prisoners to correctional officers and their families, and then to the broader community.

It is important to remember that in early April when the Supreme Court ordered the release of certain low-level offenders, the number of COVID-19 cases in Hawai‘i was at its peak, courts were closed and therefore cases not being processed by normal process, physical distancing was impossible in our overcrowded correctional facilities (OCCC was at 187% of its design capacity), inmates and correctional staff did not have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), the Department of Public Safety was reportedly not taking adequate safety precautions to protect inmates, and national experts were reporting that nearly 10,000 prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19, with the number of cases expected to double each week. The Hawai‘i Supreme Court clearly made the right decision based on all of the available evidence.

Hawai‘i was lucky. We had low community spread and because the Supreme Court acted quickly and in concert with protective measures in the broader community, the virus did not get into our jails or prisons. The Hawai‘i Supreme Court, and the highest courts of other states, acted wisely and prudently in ordering the release of low-level offenders. If the coronavirus had entered our prison system it would have spread quickly and threatened the entire community.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 in San Quentin State Prison that has infected 40% of the inmates there, killing 12 inmates and counting, is a cautionary tale for Hawai‘i.

What is the most effective way to reduce crime on Oahu?

Short term: Almost three-quarters of the people in our jails and prisons are there for low-level offenses stemming from houselessness, mental illness, and substance use disorders. The criminal justice system is notoriously inefficient and ineffective in dealing with these problems, and if they are not addressed in a comprehensive way, they have an extremely high recidivism rate, with some defendants cycling through our jails up to eight or more times a year. These cases should be diverted to social service agencies and community-based programs that can work with the defendants and their families on long term solutions, while freeing up police and prosecutors to focus on serious crimes like robbery, rape, murder, sex trafficking and public corruption.

Long term: The most effective way to reduce crime in the long term is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. That means focusing our resources on early childhood intervention programs and other measures that address child and family problems and early criminogenic behavior.

We should also adopt a public health approach to offenses stemming from poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorder, and our correctional system must focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution.

Finally, we must recognize that “tough on crime” policies do not work. There is overwhelming evidence that they have not achieved significant crime reduction at an affordable cost and they have not made our communities safe.

Given the budget constraints of county government, are there certain crimes you would prioritize or de-prioritize in terms of prosecution?

We should stop prosecuting low-level offenses and focus on prosecuting serious crimes like murder, rape, sex trafficking, robbery, aggravated assault, and public corruption.

More specifically, I would not prosecute crimes stemming from poverty such as violations of Honolulu’s sit-lie ordinances and park closure laws. People who violate those laws need treatment and services and should be referred to programs like LEAD for help. Also, I would not prosecute non-violent crimes stemming from substance use disorder if the defendant is willing to participate in treatment.

Do you support reforms to policing in Hawaii? If yes, please explain what reforms you support.

We must reform our police Department. We should recruit a more professional workforce, require universal use of body cameras while on patrol or in the community, restrict no-knock raids, collect reliable data for policy makers to use in formulating and analyzing public safety issues, institute implicit bias training, and revise use-of-force policies in collaboration with the community. I also support the creation of a 24/7 independent crisis response team modeled on Eugene, Oregonʻs Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program. In that program, calls coming in to the police call center that have a strong behavioral health component and donʻt involve an extreme threat of violence are routed to CAHOOTS, which dispatches a crisis intervention team made up of an experienced medic and crisis worker to handle the situation. The program has saved the city of Eugene millions of dollars and has saved lives.

I would also address police misconduct by supporting greater transparency and accountability in cases of police misconduct. In that vein, I support HB 285, the pending legislation that would grant public access to records of police misconduct that lead to suspensions or terminations. Under the current law, the Honolulu Police Department has not released files about any suspended police officers for 20 years. We must lift the veil of secrecy around police misconduct and, where police violate criminal laws, prosecute them as we would prosecute any other citizen. Our communities are less safe when bad actors on the police force act with impunity.

What specific measures would you take to prevent a repeat of the abuses by convicted deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha?

I will make adherence to the highest ethical standards a top priority for attorneys and staff, and I will invest in new leaders who exemplify ethical behavior. Of course, I will also remove any prosecutors involved in the Kealoha scandal who remain in the Prosecutor’s Office. I will create a code of conduct for lawyers and staff, and I will create a safe and secure environment for employees to report misconduct without fear of retribution or reprisal. I will also require attorneys to attend an annual review of the ethical rules that govern lawyers, and create a culture that values honesty, integrity and the highest ethical standards.

It is also worth noting that the Kealoha scandal arose due to a corrupt relationship between members of the Honolulu Police Department and members of the Prosecutor’s Office. You cannot root our corruption within the police force if you are dependent on the police union for political support and donations. In order to eliminate corruption, our next Prosecuting Attorney must be independent from the police union, not reliant on their endorsement or campaign contributions. I will be an independent leader and have the political will to eliminate corruption in the Prosecutor’s Office and the Police Department.

What would you do to restore trust and transparency in the Department of Prosecuting Attorney?

I believe, as Justice Louis Brandeis once said, that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I will implement the key provisions of the prosecutorial transparency bill now pending in the Legislature (HB 2749) including putting the office’s major policies online and continuously collecting and publishing data on decision making within the office.

To create and maintain confidence and trust, prosecutors must be completely independent. They should not seek or accept contributions or political support from police unions as that creates an inherent conflict of interest that undermines trust and confidence.

I will create a safe environment for attorneys and staff to report misconduct, require attorneys to attend an annual review session on the ethical rules that govern lawyers, and create a culture that values honesty, integrity and the highest ethical standards.

Is there anything more that you would like voters to know about you?

I am committed to creating a safer and more just Hawai‘i for my 5-year old daughter and for all of the people of Hawai‘i. I will bring new ideas to the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney, and I am proud that the progressive ideas I have been discussing with the community have attracted national attention and won the endorsement of people like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and San Francisco’s new District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, as well as local organizations committed to a better future for Hawai‘i like the Sierra Club of Hawai’i, and Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest & Hawai‘i, among others. Together we can build a safer and more just Hawai‘i.

View more candidate questionnaires or see more 2020 Hawaii elections coverage.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature
Comments (1)

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.

Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.

Scroll Up