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2020 Election: Steve Alm

Steve Alm
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Name on ballot:

Steve Alm

Running for:

Honolulu prosecuting attorney

Political party:

Non-Partisan (I am registered as a Democrat)

Campaign website:


Current occupation:

Circuit Court Judge (Ret.)



Previous job history:

Consultant on HOPE Probation, Department of State (2016-2019); First Circuit Court Judge (2001-2016); United States Attorney (1994-2001); Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office (1985-1994); West Publishing Company (1983-1985); Hawaii State Legislature (1980 Session); Charley’s Taxi (Intermittent, 3 Years); Dole Cannery (4 Summers starting after 10th Grade).

Previous elected office, if any:


Please describe your qualifications to represent the people of Hawaii.

I have spent 31 years protecting the people of Hawaii and will do so again while restoring trust to the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. I have been tested as a leader and a supervisor in many jobs, and have a proven track record of success in all of them.
I was a Felony Team Captain at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, and then, for 4 years, I was the Director there of the District and Family Court Division, supervising 31 deputies, 25 staff members, and 5 investigators. I taught the deputy prosecutors to be ethical and to do justice, not just win cases. I also taught them to be effective trial attorneys so they could be successful in court and able to negotiate plea agreements from a position of strength.
I then ran the United States Attorney’s Office, heading a team of prosecutors and staff, and was also a leader in the community where I led the Weed & Seed effort which reduced crime in Chinatown and Kalihi-Palama by over 70% in 3 years.
I was then a Circuit Court Judge, where I oversaw the court performance of deputy prosecutors and defense counsel, presided at over 200 jury trials, and, working with probation, used innovative strategies to improve Drug Court and to markedly reduce recidivism in the probation system.
This is no time for on-the-job training in how to be a supervisor and leader at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. There is too much at stake. I will hit the ground running to bring credibility to the office and to promote programs that have been proven to enhance the safety of the public.

What will be your top priority if elected?

This campaign for Honolulu Prosecutor is all about restoring trust to that office. The first step will be to create a culture of high ethical standards of conduct and of doing justice, not just winning cases. I accomplished that while serving as the Director of the District and Family Court Division at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office before, and will do so again for the entire office. This effort will involve evaluating various practices in the office, such as charging cases, discovery, and plea agreements. I will also institute formal training for the deputy prosecutors in ethics and trial skills. Highly skilled and ethical trial attorneys will be more effective in court and will be able to secure favorable verdicts and offer plea agreements from a position of strength.
I will look at reorganizing the office to see if the existing structure best serves the needs of the criminal justice system and of victims. I will look at creating specialized teams of deputy prosecutors, such as for homicides and for drug cases, so they will be more efficient and effective in working with the Honolulu Police Department and producing better outcomes in court.
Finally, I believe in open-communication and collaboration, and will re-establish the Prosecutor’s Office as a full partner with all of the other criminal justice agencies (county, state, and federal).

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

The COVID-19 crisis presented a unique challenge for our corrections and legal system. I did not support the initial request for the wholesale release of inmates by the Public Defender’s Office, due to the impact this would have on the community. I realized, the Public Defenders Office’s (by Jacquie Esser, James Tabe, and Lee Hayakawa) chief concern and priority was for their clients, the inmates. However, as a former deputy prosecutor, United States Attorney, and Judge, my immediate concern was not just for the inmates, but for all of the people of Hawaii, and I believed this issue demanded a case-by-case review, as was Special Master Dan Foley’s recommendation. Initially, many inmates were released in the normal course (making bail, finishing sentences, etc). Others were released through defense/prosecution agreement. HPD also made fewer arrests, instead, issuing citations and deferring arrests when public safety allowed it.
I would have preferred to stop the emergency releases at that point. There were (and still have not been) zero reported cases of COVID-19 in the Oahu Community Correctional Center, Honolulu’s jail. There was no meaningful supervision of those that were released. Due to physical distancing, there was no drug testing being done, and no face-to-face meetings with supervisory officers.
The responsibility for managing this now reduced population should, at that point, have been placed with the Department of Public Safety. I am confident they would have handled it through extensive testing (of all Adult Corrections Officers, civilian employees, and inmates- both existing and new admissions), and quarantining, using available spaces (e.g. courtyards, gyms) or temporary structures at OCCC or at other PSD facilities or at National Guard Armories.
That would have prevented inmates with no place to live from becoming homeless. That put them at a higher risk of being victimized out on the street, as well as being exposed to drugs, and possible COVID-19 infection. This approach also would have meant no new emergency releasee arrests for new crimes out in the community.

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

As a judge and a prosecutor, I have learned to understand that research and data should drive criminal justice policy, not “gut-feelings,” anecdote, or “we’ve always done it this way.”
As Honolulu Prosecutor, I would look for and promote new and innovative strategies, as well as proven ones, that reduce victimization and crime, reduce the number of people arrested and sent to jail and prison, and that reduce recidivism. I have a proven record of doing this. Working with other community initiatives, I led the Weed & Seed effort in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown, that attacked crime problems by listening to the community about their specific concerns. This effort resulted in felonies in those neighborhoods dropping from 3,041 to 746, and misdemeanors from 7,686 to 2,346, in three years.
HOPE Probation has also succeeded in reducing arrests for new crimes and helping people succeed on felony probation and avoid going to prison. Research by Pepperdine and UCLA show that HOPE Probationers, when compared to a control group on regular probation, were arrested for new crimes 55% less often, and served or were sentenced to 48% fewer days in state prison. Notably, Native Hawaiians in HOPE Probation were revoked and sent to prison 35% less often than Native Hawaiians in regular probation.
When applied to the pretrial population, research by Berkeley and the University of Chicago found that those in HOPE pretrial were arrested for new felonies 42% less often than those in regular pretrial. If elected as Honolulu Prosecutor, I will explore the viability of reinvigorating the Weed & Seed strategy in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown, and possibly expanding it to other communities, such as Kaka’ako/Ala Moana, and Waikiki. I will advocate the continued efforts of the HOPE strategy to further reduce crime.
Instituting formal ethics and trial skills training for the deputy prosecutors will make them more effective in court, and lead to better outcomes there and more favorable plea agreements. As the public starts to see crime get reduced, their faith in the criminal justice system will improve.

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

We know from research that, aside from the needed punishment aspect for heinous crimes, the more meaningful approach for determining priorities for incarceration lies in the level of risk an offender presents.
Under my leadership, the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office will focus on putting the truly risky, violent, and dangerous offenders in prison. As a judge, I had witnessed the propensity of the Prosecutor’s Office to take the same position of recommending imprisonment for every defendant, no matter the risk. This impacts their credibility and I will work towards training that provide more discerning arguments in court.

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

First and foremost, we should never be satisfied with the status quo, no matter what system we work in, so improvements to policing in Hawaii will also lead to a better quality of life. Police officers have one of the most difficult jobs in Hawaii, and are constantly exposed to life threatening situations. However, they also have tremendous powers, which is why they face additional scrutiny and accountability.
Additional training is always appropriate. The department has already scheduled training that will be implemented to teach less than lethal alternatives for the Crime Reduction Units. Implicit bias training will also be implemented. I participated in that training when I was a judge and found it helpful.
In what is still largely a male profession, although women are now serving on the police force in increasing numbers, they are still being exposed to sexism. We need to provide funding for all training opportunities that will help our police officers to be the fairest and most effective that they can be.
In addition, collecting good data is critical so we know exactly what is going on, and where problems may exist, so we can take appropriate steps to address any issues.
The legislature has recently passed a law that will release the names of those officers suspended or discharged and hopefully, that will have a deterrent effect on officer behavior.
Finally, no one is above the law, and that includes police officers. When they break the law, they need to be held accountable and prosecuted. I demonstrated my commitment to this when I was the United States Attorney. I made a major effort when I was the United States Attorney to involve the Honolulu Police Department in as many investigations and cases as possible. The combination of a federal agency and the Honolulu Police Department led to the best cases. Nevertheless, we did prosecute Honolulu Police officers for Civil Rights violations and for corruption because they broke the law and it was the right thing to do.
In a perfect world of unlimited budgets, it might make sense to create a totally separate law enforcement prosecuting organization, not under the authority of the Honolulu Police Department, the Honolulu Prosecutor, or the Hawaii Attorney General. It would be staffed by experienced and highly regarded investigators and prosecutors to handle all investigations and prosecutorial decision-making concerning law enforcement officers.
Until that day comes, as Honolulu Prosecutor, I have the responsibility to investigate and charge, when appropriate, all matters where we receive credible evidence that police officers have committed crimes. This may call for a separate section of deputies that will handle those cases, or a few select, skilled, and experienced deputies to investigate, and if appropriate, prosecute those cases. In any event, and most importantly, the buck would stop with me, as the Honolulu Prosecutor, to make all final decisions regarding charging and prosecuting. I would make those tough calls and not leave that decision making to a deputy prosecutor who would not have the same level of experience and confidence that I do.

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

First, I would create a culture of high ethical standards of conduct and of doing justice, not just winning cases, for the entire office.
Second, I would appoint good people, with high moral standards, to supervisory positions. As a supervisor and leader in many jobs, I have had the opportunity to repeatedly select supervisors, and I believe I have the good judgement to do so again at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office. People I have selected for supervisory positions in the past include Elliot Enoki, John Peyton, Mike Chun, Les Osborne, and Flo Nakakuni at the United State’s Attorney’s Office, and Loretta Sheehan, Tom Brady, and Ron (now Judge) Johnson at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office.
Third, I would mandate that no deputy prosecutor would be in a supervisory position where they had a conflict of interest, or the appearance of a conflict. Katherine Kealoha, being married to the Chief of Police, should never have been in a position where she was making decisions on whether Honolulu police officers should be charged with crimes.
Fourth, I would only appoint supervisors for trial divisions who have extensive trial experience. That would have excluded Ms. Kealoha as well. This would allow those supervisors to be effective leaders and role models, who could answer their deputies questions about trial strategies and trial issues that often come up in the heat of the moment. That lengthy trial experience will also have tested them, and hopefully brought their characters to the fore. I would hope my own extensive trial experience (26 jury trials as a deputy prosecutor, including five murder cases, and presiding at over 200 jury trials as a judge) has done the same thing for me. Finally, I would create a mentoring program so all deputies would have a mentor, outside of their chain of command, to go to with any personal or professional problems or concerns.

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

There are several things that need doing, all of which would start on Day One. One, I would create a culture of high ethical standards and of doing justice, not just winning cases.
Two, we would examine all of the cases touched by supervising deputy prosecutor Katherine Kealoha, determine her involvement, and take appropriate action. This could range from allowing the case to proceed (if it has not already been disposed of) to dismissing it. If we find evidence of wrong-doing for a disposed-of case, we would do what we needed to do to make that right, including vacating a conviction. We would look for any other potential corruption in the office, root it out, and deal with it.
Three, I would focus on hiring practices and training for both new and current deputy prosecutors. Highly skilled and ethical prosecutors will have more success in court and will be able to negotiate better plea agreements.
Four, I will look at starting new and innovative programs to address community crime concerns. I will also look at re-instating initiatives that have proven successful in the past, like Weed & Seed, where I led the effort that reduced crime in Kalihi-Palama and Chinatown by over 70% in 3 years.
Five, I would ensure that no deputy prosecutor handled a case either as a supervisor or as a line deputy if they have a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest, as was the case with Katherine Kealoha.
Finally, I would make the Prosecutor’s Office much more transparent by capturing statistics to show how the office is performing and sharing that with the public and the press. As the public sees the office being more active and successful, their confidence in the office will increase.

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

I was born and raised in Honolulu and lived in Manoa and then Kaimuki. My parents were both professors in the University of Hawaii College of Education. They taught my older brother Robbie and me to treat all people with courtesy and respect and, by example, taught us the value of public service.
Robbie and I attended University Lab School. I made lifelong friends there, played virtually all the sports offered, and was in an HI-Y social club at the Central YMCA called the Musubi Machine. I was Senior Class President, while my friend, John Komeiji, was Student Body President.
I worked for four summers at Dole Cannery, starting after 10th grade, and later, for Charley’s Taxi.
During the summer after graduating, I was working nights at Dole, and looked around for another sport. That led me to Kalakaua Gym in Kalihi to learn how to box. Fittingly, my first visit to Oahu Prison was for a fight. My second fight was against Mark Ibanez out in Waianae.
I attended UH Manoa for two years, including one semester working at the Salvation Army school for troubled children in Kaimuki, before transferring to the University of Oregon for an undergraduate and a graduate degree in Education. That turned out to be fortuitous because I met my future wife, Haunani, there. She was a Kamehameha Schools graduate, who became a deputy prosecutor, and an Administrative Law Judge. We have one son, Chris, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Growing up in Hawaii has given me a valuable perspective on the world, and has taught me how to treat people. Hawaii is my home.
I have spent my entire 31 year legal career, first as a deputy prosecutor, then as the United States Attorney, and then as a judge, protecting the people of Hawaii. I hope to continue to do that as your next Honolulu Prosecutor.

View more candidate questionnaires or see more 2022 Hawaii elections coverage.
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