By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
On Dec. 3, Mitch Roth will become Hawaii County’s first new elected prosecutor in a generation, having won a general election nailbiter over county Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida.
The 48-year-old Roth takes over from Charlene Iboshi, who is retiring at the end of the month. Iboshi, a longtime first deputy, took over the office when former Jay Kimura, who served as elected prosecutor for almost two decades, retired in April 2011.
Roth has been a deputy prosecutor for 19 years, five in Honolulu and 14 on the Big Island.
“I’ve worked in Honolulu and I’ve worked here as a prosecutor, and I’ll say this: Our worst day here was better than the best days in Honolulu,” Roth said Tuesday.
“We have a great family of people. I love the people in this office, and I think we have great people.”
He also praised Iboshi for her skill as a prosecutor, a grant writer, and “a mother figure” to many who work for her.
“What I know about Charlene is that she has a heart of gold,” Roth said. “I may not always agree with her, but I know that she’s always had my best interest and the interest of those who work in the office and the office itself in mind.”
Roth will assume control of an office where numerous employees, including deputies, worked and campaigned for Ashida, while others supported his election bid. He said political patronage isn’t an issue and he won’t ask for courtesy letters of resignation — a standard practice after elections in some offices. He did, however, say he asked employees to submit letters stating why they’d like to continue working there.
“One of the things I’ve asked the deputies to do is to give me a statement about their philosophy of what their job is,” he said. “I didn’t tell them my philosophy. My philosophy is that we’re doing God’s work to ensure justice. To me, this is a calling and I love it, and I want us to do the best job we can, so the people of our community are safe and healthy.”
Roth said he wants a healthy work environment, as well, one free of negativity and cynicism.
“In the criminal justice system, it’s really easy to be cynical,” he said. “A lot of times, we go into court hoping to get big sentences, and we sometimes find out that the judge has a different view than we do. So we don’t always get what we want, and we see a pattern in the way we think cases are being treated. And it’s real easy to get cynical, because you want more, but the system can’t handle more, oftentimes.”
Roth believes part of his and his deputies’ jobs is to “figure out solutions so the system runs more efficiently.” He used as an example the state’s requirement that defendants be tried within 180 days of being charged with a crime, unless that right is waived by the defense, and one deputy’s high-tech idea to ensure speedy trials.
“Jason Skier actually came up with a computer app in which you put in today’s date and you can figure out what 180 days actually is. He shared that with people and that makes the system better,” he said.
Deputy Prosecutor Rick Damerville, who supported Roth’s candidacy and who is retiring on Nov. 30, praised Roth as “a problem solver” and a “true community-based prosecutor.”
“Long before there was any talk about Mitch running for office, he would go out into the community on his own, often on his own time, talk to people and listen to them, find out what the problems are and come up with ways to help,” Damerville said. “Mitch is a people person and a he’s great listener.”
Roth helped procure the Weed and Seed grant widely credited for cleaning up Pahoa town. He’s the first prosecutor to use the state’s nuisance abatement law to close down drug houses and was granted an injunction to keep one individual reputed to be a drug dealer out of Pahoa. He was on the task force that drafted the state’s ignition interlock law for drunken driving cases, and helped to pass the county ordinance known as “Aliyah’s Law” — named after Aliyah Braden, a 17-month-old Kona girl killed by a drunken driver. That law allows police to have the vehicles of drunken drivers and those driving illegally to be towed and impounded.
One of Roth’s campaign pledges was to look at unsolved murders, which have no statute of limitations, “with fresh eyes.”
“There’s a cold case squad out of the Attorney General’s office and I’m looking at sending some of those cases over there to be reviewed, as well,” he said.
Paul Dolan, a third candidate, received about 17 percent of the vote in the primary, largely on his promise not to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. Roth made no such promise, but said it doesn’t make sense to make stand-alone misdemeanor pot possession cases a priority.
“I’d put a guesstimate that about 90 percent of those cases are hooked up with methamphetamine cases,” Roth said. “During asset forfeiture cases, almost every single methamphetamine case is gonna have marijuana, as well, generally small amounts of marijuana. Someone explained this to me, from the Dolan camp, and it made so much sense. Meth takes you up and marijuana mellows you out. And that’s why there are so many of these cases.
“When somebody talks about all the jail space taken up by marijuana defendants, show me two people in this state that are in jail simply on marijuana cases. Everybody wants to bring up Roger Christie. Roger Christie is not a state case; it’s a federal case. So I don’t think our jail cells are being taken up on marijuana cases. That being said, my job is to enforce the law that is the law. But it’s not going to be our focus, to go after (simple marijuana possession) cases, because it doesn’t make sense to make those a priority. When we’re talking about drugs, marijuana is not the big, bad gorilla in the room, methamphetamine is the one that we’re gonna be putting our attention to. But if those cases come in, we’re gonna prosecute them, like we prosecute traffic tickets, because it’s our job to prosecute.”
Roth said there is “absolutely a correlation” between methamphetamine use and property crimes.
“You think about people who have a $150 to $300 a day methamphetamine habit. Where are they gonna get the money? They have a couple of choices. They can work hard and earn $300 a day. Not too many people earn $300 a day. They can sell things that own. They can sell themselves. They can sell drugs. And they can sell things that they don’t own. So people are breaking into houses to feed their addiction. That’s why we’re going after drug houses to shut them down. A lot of times, we’re finding out that the drug houses are related to these burglaries, because that’s where they’re bringing this stuff. Some are taking stolen goods for drugs. You close down the distribution point, you slow down the burglaries as well.”
Roth praised the HOPE Probation program, which makes high-risk probationers check in daily and submit to frequent drug tests and the Pu‘uhonua program, which uses Hawaiian cultural philosophies such as ho‘oponopono, or restorative mediation, as alternatives to prison, although he says he has “no problem” with jailing career criminals.
“If your only solution is a hammer, all your problems are nails,” he said. “And if your only solution is a jail cell and you don’t have enough jail cells, what do you do? Rather than complain about it, let’s find solutions. Part of those solutions are finding other ways of exacting consequences for criminal behavior.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.