HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The man challenging City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro in November's election said there's been a "mass exodus" of lawyers from the office since Kaneshiro took over about 18 months ago.
"The flight of deputy prosecutors from the prosecutor's office is symptomatic of a very serious problem within the office," said Kevin Takata, the former chief of the trials division and 23-year employee in the prosecutor's office until he was not retained when Kaneshiro took over in October of 2010.
Takata said about 52 deputies, roughly half the lawyers in the prosecutor's office, have departed in the year and half that Kaneshiro has been in charge.
"This loss jeopardizes the safety of our community by creating a shortage of experienced deputies to handle serious cases, resulting in cases being lost that shouldn't be lost," Takata said.
Kaneshiro disagreed, saying, "Public safety has never been jeopardized in this office."
Kaneshiro said the number of lawyers who have left during his term is more like 36 – one third of the lawyers on staff -- if you subtract the 11 he did not retain when he first took over and another five who followed former Prosecutor Peter Carlisle to the mayor's office.
Kaneshiro said those who have departed have been replaced.
"The deputies who have come to this office are very experienced. They have clerked with judges, they're experienced in legal writing, legal research and also, some deputies have trial experience," Kaneshiro said.
Kaneshiro claimed losing one third of his attorneys in less than two years is not "high turnover." But old timers in the office said in the final two years Carlisle was prosecutor, less than ten attorneys departed the office.
"Sometimes attorneys get complacent and they get comfortable," Kaneshiro said, nothing that some attorneys who've left the prosecutors did not like Saturday training sessions he added for trial attorneys. Kaneshiro said some judges complained to him after he took office that some trial attorneys needed more training, so he embarked on a training program for deputies.
"Some people who had been here in the past, I guess probably some of them didn't like training. That's additional work for them, so they left," Kaneshiro added.
Kaneshiro said he has scrutinized plea bargains more than Carlisle's deputies were used to.
"So I think public safety has been upgraded since I came here, because we're not letting defendants plea bargain and getting probation when they've committed a class-A felony," Kaneshiro said.
Kaneshiro said 96 of the prosecutor's 104 attorney's positions are currently filled and he's recruiting for the other eight vacancies.
Takata declined to single out specific cases that have been lost, because he said he didn't want to disparage specific deputy prosecutors. He said can't fault inexperienced lawyers in the office for any difficulties they're experiencing in the court room.
"They're not given the opportunity to prepare adequately for trial, their case loads are too heavy," Takata said. "The deputies are moving through the office too quickly to develop trial skills."
Takata said people are leaving the office because it's not well run.
"It's work conditions. They're not treated with decency and respect. Management policies that don't make any sense that create more work," Takata said.
"Cases are regularly moved from one deputy to another, which means they have to learn a new case all over again, when another deputy knows that case. That doesn't make sense," Takata added. Kaneshiro said that kind of work process had been around for years.
Takata said there are others who want to leave the city prosecutor's office but want to continue fighting crime as prosecutors and there are not a lot of prosecutor jobs available, so they stay in their city jobs.
"We used to have going away parties; I understand that has ended under (Kaneshiro's) administration," Takata said.
"What is the best way to address the crime problem? That's what the prosecuting attorney is all about. Not just filling vacancies," Kaneshiro said. "The way to ensure public safety is getting good laws passed. Making sure that you get sufficient funding for your office."
Kaneshiro said he worked with the legislature this year to get funding for eight more deputy prosecutor positions, which will add to the current count of 104 lawyers.
State lawmakers approved $740,000 to hire five career criminal deputy prosecutors, $121,000 for two drug court deputies and $86,000 for a HOPE probation program attorney, according to a spokesman for the prosecutor's office. Legislation for the hiring awaits the governor's signature.
Takata is now a deputy state Attorney General, specializing in criminal cases, a position he has held since he left the city prosecutor's office in 2010. Takata headed the trials division for ten years and was a homicide prosecutor for seven years, during his 23-year career at the city prosecutor's office, working for three prosecutors, Carlisle, Kaneshiro and Charles Marsland.
Kaneshiro won a special election to fill the final two years of Carlisle's term in 2010. He is seeking re-election in November for what would be his third four-year term as prosecutor, since he previously served in the post from 1988 to 1996. Kaneshiro has also been director of the state's Department of Public Safety.