HILO — Juvenile crime is down 58.5 percent over the past five years, despite heavy caseloads and limited budgets in the Office of the County Prosecutor. Crimes in other categories have also been dropping.
That’s according to Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth, the island’s only countywide elected official other than the mayor, who made a budget presentation Wednesday to the County Council Finance Committee.
The department’s budget has been about the same over the past several years, even as expenses continue to rise, he said. The current budget has $7.4 million from the county general fund, $1.3 million from the state and $1.8 million from the federal government.
Roth promoted a combination of more prosecutions along with an emphasis on prevention programs as factors in reducing crime. In the last quarter of last year, 1,720 defendants were arrested and charged, compared to 1,012 during that same period in 2015.
“I believe it’s paid off,” Roth said. “If we don’t get them off the streets, they’re going to be committing more crimes.”
Deputy prosecutors, who aren’t paid overtime, have high caseloads of 20-30 cases at a time, he said.
In 2016, the latest data available, Hawaii County’s total Index Crime rate and property crime rate decreased 24.1 percent and 26.5 percent respectively, to reach their record low levels, and the violent crime rate rose 16.3 percent, according to the state Crime Prevention and Justice Assistance Division. Hawaii County’s burglary rate in 2016 was also at its record low level.
Police Chief Paul Ferreira also came in to explain his department’s budget and program.
The Police Department’s budget, at $67.5 million, includes 450 sworn officers and 144 non-sworn personnel, Ferreira said. That’s slightly higher than the national standard of police officers per capita, but doesn’t take into account the sheer size of the island or the number of tourists, he said.
Neighborhood Watch programs and special enforcement units help fill in the gaps. Special enforcement units are put together for specific situations, like last summer’s rash of car thefts in West Hawaii.
“I’m looking at 10 positions, but without funding, I can’t increase our staffing at all. … I would love a time when we have funds to go proactively,” Ferreira said. “Our officers have been challenged for years and they’re doing the best they can with what they do have.”
The state has been sending more expenses, such as for extraditions and expert witnesses, down to the county level that were once paid at the state level, Roth said.
“It seems where the state can put it off to the county, they’re putting it off on the county,” Roth said.
Council members generally praised Roth’s emphasis on preventing crime.
“When we have a problem, there’s funding for it. But to prevent a problem, there’s no funding for it,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. “The information that you’ve put forth is just short of overwhelming.”
Public safety, which includes prosecutor, police, fire protection and civil defense, accounts for 28.2 percent of the county’s operating budget and is slated for a 4.3 percent increase in the budget year that starts July 1.
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung says the importance of public safety can’t be underestimated. But Chung wants more data from the prosecuting attorney.
“Public safety is the most important aspect of county government,” Chung said. “What I would like to see, is how all these programs are working. Is crime on the upswing or downswing?”