KAILUA-KONA — Prosecutors, public defenders and the Department of Public Safety are working to establish roots in Kailua-Kona as construction of the Kona Judiciary Complex comes into its final stages.
Offices will be making the move from Kealakekua, where the current courthouse is located. While the Hawaii County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney has found a new home in a building being erected at the West Hawaii Civic Center, the Office of the Public Defender is searching for a new space in town.
“It totally makes sense for everybody to be moving,” said Mitch Roth, Hawaii County prosecuting attorney.
Also making their way to north are Intake Services, Sheriff’s Division and Paroling Authority, where they have a tentative space near the Old Industrial Area, Roth said. Probation services will be located in the new courthouse.
Construction of the new courthouse, located on Makala Boulevard, began in October 2016. Jan M. Kagehiro, spokeswoman for the state Judiciary, said the $90 million courthouse is on schedule to be complete by late spring 2019 with a planned opening in late summer.
Currently, there are four different courtrooms in three different locations in North and South Kona. The new courthouse will be a three-story facility with five courtrooms and a law library and self-help center open to the community. There will also be conference rooms, attorney interview rooms, holding cells, witness rooms, and a grand jury meeting room. The courthouse represents a neutral location, accessible to all parties.
Deputy Public Defender Wendy DeWeese said she made efforts to contact her bosses on Oahu in November 2016 when former 3rd Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra informed her the new courthouse was on track to be completed in 2019. At the time, she was concerned about the state renewing the lease in the office at their current office.
“I’ve been rattling cages for two years,” DeWeese said.
DeWeese added the future of their office has caused some anxiety.
“Everyone’s asking and I don’t have the answer,” she said.
Earlier this week, DeWeese was given the go-ahead to look at office space closer to the new courthouse. Currently, the public defenders office is 1,742 square feet — however, the attorney said they need 3,000 square feet to function more efficiently.
“I know what we need; whether people two islands away agree is another story,” she said.
DeWeese said public defenders get called to the courthouse on a moment’s notice to stand in on cases. The current office off Halekii Street is about 11 miles from the site of the new courthouse.
“If we’re 45 minutes away, that’s not going to happen,” she said.
But, now it is coming down to the wire, she added.
“I know the community isn’t necessarily concerned about our plight,” DeWeese said. “But for the sake of functionality of the court, you’d think judges and the prosecutors office would be concerned.”
State Public Defender John Tonaki said the Judiciary has been unclear about when the courthouse will open. He was told it was in the fall of next year, but has heard through the grapevine it could open earlier.
As the public defenders office looks for space closer to the new courthouse, Tonaki said, there are space allocations that are to be met.
“The office we’re in is larger than what we need — on paper,” he said of the Kealakekua space. “Each attorney is allowed an 8-by-10 office and allowed a certain square footage.”
Aside from finding the right space, it’s finding the right location.
“The problem we do have with space is the perceived clientele coming around, so that presents difficulty,” Tonaki said.
Even if the public defenders office can’t find a space near the courthouse, Tonaki hopes they can find an office at a more workable distance.
“Even if it’s three or four miles, that’ll be a little more manageable,” Tonaki said.
On top of finding the right space, there is funding, which has always been an issue for the public defenders office, Tonaki added.
“We’re looking (for new space) but it’s certainly not an easy thing to relocate,” Tonaki said. “The state doesn’t want to spend the money.”
Through the Department of Accounting and General Services, the state pays a little more than $3,000 a month to lease the public defenders office in Kealakekua. To approve a higher rent would have to go through a budget legislative submission.
Kagehiro said the judiciary is looking forward to the opening of the Kona Judiciary Complex.
“The Judiciary supports court efficiency in the administration of justice and believes it can be best achieved if key parties are located in close proximity to the courthouse,” Kagehiro said.