Honolulu’s Draconian Head Prosecutor Facing Federal Corruption Probe

    Not everything in Honolulu is sunshine. A massive percentage of the city’s population lives without a home, and its cops diligently try to keep them in jail. Only California’s biggest cities rival it for traffic congestion, and costs for the incomplete light-rail project meant to address this have run into billions—the government agency responsible just got hit with a subpoena.

    But the city’s draconian elected prosecutor, Keith Kaneshiro, is in even worse legal peril. Kaneshiro has received a US Department of Justice “target letter,” affirming that he is indeed under federal criminal investigation, as has been hinted at for years. The move is part of a massive corruption probe.

    Former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha, has already been federally indicted as part of the same investigation. His wife Katherine Kealoha, a former deputy prosecutor under Kaneshiro’s tutelage, has been charged with corruption counts and, more recently, drug trafficking.

    On February 12, Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors filed a petition for extraordinary writ with the state’s Supreme Court, in hopes that it will suspend Kaneshiro’s law license. If that happens, Kaneshiro will have to vacate the Honolulu Prosecutor seat, which will likely trigger a special election for his replacement.

    His departure would not be mourned by anyone who supports criminal justice reform and human rights.

    Once considered the “law-and-order man” of Hawaii Democrats, Kaneshiro has served as Honolulu’s top cop from 1988 to 1996, and again from 2010 to the present. Honolulu constitutes about 70 percent of Hawaii’s population, so Kaneshiro alone represents most of the state’s prosecutors when he testifies in front of the legislature.

    His entire career can be summarized as a single-minded mission to lock up as many people as possible, for as long as possible. For example, Kaneshiro complained about a drug treatment program that put people on probation in lieu of prison, because people were getting “more than second chances.” He added that “if they want to be rehabilitated, have them be rehabilitated in custody.”

    Describing Kaneshiro’s support for a bill to give repeat property crime offenders mandatory jail or prison time, a local reporter noted that Kaneshiro is well-known for his “skepticism toward rehabilitation.” Kaneshiro supports harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug-law violations.

    In 1996, as Hawaii’s director of Public Safety, Kaneshiro said the solution to prison overcrowding was to build more makeshift prisons. His suggestion included “tents” and “barracks structures”—echoing Trump ally and former Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his notorious “Tent City.”

    Prison overcrowding continued to be an extremely serious issue in the following decades in Hawaii, culminating in the state’s shipping significant numbers of prisoners to Saguaro Correctional Center. This CoreCivic-owned private prison in the Arizona desert is almost 3,000 miles away from home.

    Nearly 50 percent of Saguaro Correctional Center’s prisoners from Hawaii are native Hawaiian—a group comprising only about 10 percent of the state’s population. Yet, when asked in 2016 about his office’s racial disparities, Kaneshiro simply quipped that “Race is never a consideration for incarceration. If there is not enough bed space, the state should build more beds.”

    Locking up people convicted of crimes is not enough for Kaneshiro, however. He more recently extended his reach to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. He turned a one-stop services “shelter” into a jail for victims, then described the women there as people who “did not know what’s good for them.” Kaneshiro’s agents also once swooped in to arrest a young woman at her college graduation, in order to ensure that she would testify at her ex-boyfriend’s domestic violence trial.

    Honolulu has had only had three elected prosecutors, including Kaneshiro, since the position was instituted in 1988. The first, Charles Marsland, was a staunch conservative who crusaded against organized crime after his son’s murder in 1975, and once broke a bishop’s hand with a handshake. The state’s incarceration rate nearly tripled during Marsland’s eight years in office.

    The second, Peter Carlisle, was so alarmist about drugs that he publicly claimed drug use is “not a victimless crime,” and campaigned on randomly drug-testing students at schools. In 2007, the Hawaii Supreme Court found that he misused city funds to lobby for a 2002 constitutional amendment that made it easier to prosecute people.

    The current crisis under Prosecutor Kaneshiro has sparked debate over whether Honolulu should continue electing prosecutors or go back to the old mayoral appointment system.

    People from across the world visit the most remote major city on earth for its balmy climate, clear water and gorgeous beaches. Most will have little idea of how much Honolulu’s people have been persecuted by their prosecutors.

    Photo modified from Michael Olsen on Unsplash

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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