City prosecutor to take aim at serial thieves, charging them with more serious crimes
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu’s Prosecutor wants to crack down on serial thieves by charging them with more serious crimes.
Retailers said serial property thieves take millions from their businesses, often avoiding serious punishment. But, reform advocates warn that stiffer penalties won’t reduce the crimes.
Earlier this month, Honolulu prosecutors charged Lawrence Smalls for stealing alcohol from the Cheesecake Factory in Waikiki.
Normally, it’s a petty misdemeanor. But because of the 36-year-old’s lengthy theft record, he is facing felony charges under the state’s Habitual Property Crime law.
“We have people like Mr. Smalls who in the last 15 years has 161 convictions — mostly for theft, sometimes for harassment and open lewdness, a lot of it for alcohol,” said Honolulu Prosecutor Steven Alm.
“To actually get 161 convictions, I don’t think he’s scared of the criminal justice system.”
Smalls pleaded not guilty in Circuit Court on Thursday and is being held at the Oahu Community Correctional Center.
But instead of the 30-day maximum for a petty misdemeanor, he faces up to 5 years in prison if convicted. His bail was also set at $20,000.
“He is not getting out,” said Alm.
Retailers — who are working the Prosecutor’s Office and Honolulu Police to identify repeat offenders — welcome the tougher stance on property crimes. They say they have become frustrated with a system which allows serial thieves to avoid serious punishment.
“When these shoplifters get prosecuted and finally go to court, what we’re finding is a lot of judges are saying, ‘Slap on the wrist, bad person don’t do it again,’ and they let them out,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii.
“You got to understand that the shoplifters that we have are not the ones who are shoplifting spam and rice to feed their family. They’re career criminals. It’s part of organized retail crime.”
But criminal justice reform advocates say the stiffer penalties won’t prevent more crime — they will only fill up the already crowded prisons.
According to Jacquie Esser, a criminal justice reform advocate, 70% of the people who are incarcerated wind up committing new crimes within 5 years of being released.
“We need a system that rehabilitates people caught up in the criminal justices system instead of turning them into hardened criminals,” she said.
But Alm said his office will apply the law selectively only to the worst, repeat offenders and that treatment instead of prison is also an option.
“Some defendants it might be appropriate to send them to prison, others it might be appropriate to send them to a serious drug or alcohol treatment program,” said Alm.
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