Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

75,000 warrants unserved on O'ahu

By Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writer

A growing backlog of outstanding arrest warrants has reached an all-time high on O'ahu, leaving criminals on the street longer and thousands of traffic fines unpaid, state public safety officials say.

As many as 75,000 warrants go unserved at any given time because of short staffing in the Sheriff's Division and increased security needs that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Sidney Hayakawa, Department of Public Safety deputy director for law enforcement.

The limited number of sheriff's deputies available to round up people who have warrants must concentrate on the most violent or otherwise serious felony offenders and suspects, while warrants for misdemeanors and traffic tickets continue to pile up.

"We try to focus on the people who are a danger to the community," said Lt. Robin Nagamine, who oversees the sheriff's warrant section. "When people are predators out there victimizing the public, we need to act on that first."

The vast majority of outstanding warrants are for traffic offenses, but some are also for violent felons and career criminals, he said. About 800 of the warrants are for accused felons who have been indicted by O'ahu grand juries, and nearly 300 more are for former prison inmates who violated their parole terms after they were released. The numbers do not include warrants issued on Neighbor Islands, which are handled by their county police departments.

'Vicious circle'

It is not unusual for large cities and metropolitan areas to have thousands of outstanding warrants for criminals and traffic scofflaws, and that has long been the case on O'ahu. But the backlog has grown steadily here over the past few years, and is now the largest it has ever been, officials say.

Nagamine said tight budgets over several years had reduced the number of personnel in the warrant section from 24 to 17, but that the staff had now dwindled to 14 after several deputies were promoted or transferred to other assignments.

The shortage was exacerbated after the Sept. 11 attacks, when several deputies from the warrant section were among those detailed to the airport to provide tighter round-the-clock security, Nagamine said.

The growing caseload and staff shortage leaves deputies with less time to focus on each warrant, he said, though it often takes time to track down difficult suspects.

Hayakawa said the backlog of unserved warrants also grows whenever deputies from the warrant section are temporarily reassigned to help with special events, such as the Asian Development Bank conference held in Honolulu last year.

But the criminal justice system grinds on, with grand juries handing down indictments, suspects failing to appear in court, and unpaid traffic tickets turning into warrants.

"It's like a vicious circle," Hayakawa said. "You serve one warrant today, and the next day two more are being issued."

He said the department had submitted a request to the state Department of Budget and Finance several weeks ago for permission to hire additional deputies for the warrant section. But the request comes at a time when all state departments may have to trim existing costs because of a statewide budget crunch.

Gov. Ben Cayetano's administration expects a $315 million budget deficit over this year and next, and the Legislature is wrestling with ways to fill the gap and slash spending.

Budget cuts

Since 1994, cuts to the base annual budget for the Department of Public Safety have totalled $15.3 million, and 156 positions have been eliminated, said Ted Sakai, director of the Department of Public Safety.

About 240 remaining positions are vacant, including 36 in the department's law enforcement branch, which includes the Sheriff's Division and warrants section. Most of the other vacant positions are for correctional officers and others who work in the state's prisons, Sakai said.

Hundreds of outstanding warrants are for suspects who have left the state, but some of them won't be arrested on Hawai'i charges unless they return here. The city prosecutor's office will normally extradite only defendants accused of serious or violent crimes, rather than those charged with property crimes such as petty theft, said Jim Fulton, prosecutor's office executive assistant.

Even if minor criminals were extradited, that could lead to bigger problems with prison capacity. Hawai'i's prisons hold about 3,800 inmates, or 400 more than their rated capacity, with three prisoners crammed into some cells meant to hold only one, Sakai said.

About 90 more inmates are held in leased cells at the Federal Detention Center, and 1,250 have been shipped off to private prisons on the Mainland, where Hawai'i also leases space, he said.

Reach Johnny Brannon at jbrannon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.