"Supporting the Law Enforcement Agencies of our State, and helping to educate and empower the public for a safer community."

About five minutes into a sit down interview with Judge Steven S. Alm, one begins to understand that he’s a Hawaii boy raised to a position of authority, and he’s fervently using that position to help make his birthplace better. His reputation as a “tough judge” is well deserved, but his sense of fairness, compassion, and desire to make a positive impact on the community are well coupled
Judge Alm in Courtroom I
Judge Alm's Courtroom is known both as a venue of swift justice as well as a crossroads for righting wayward lives.
with that “tough love.” Alm goes well beyond the obligations of his post to make a difference. As in the biblical stories, he seems to be one of the “good judges” brought forth to help the people.

“Perhaps I am tough, but also fair,” said Alm.

Alm currently serves as a judge on Hawaii’s First Circuit Court, Second Division, which handles felony criminal cases. In his position, he handles approximately 200 new felony cases a year, as well as any several hundred defendants on probation. In all, he has been a part of Hawaii’s Judicial System for over three decades.

After graduating from University High School, Alm earned a B. S. and Masters Degree in Education from the University of Oregon. In 1983, Alm received his Law degree at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento, Ca. He has bar memberships in both Hawaii and Minnesota. His initiation in to the Hawaii criminal justice system began as a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in 1985 under former Prosecutor Charles Marsland.

Marsland’s former deputies make up a “Who’s who” of the local legal system, with many of the current players tracing their criminal justice lineage back to his stint as Honolulu’s chief prosecutor. While a deputy for Marsland, Alm worked with United States Attorney Ed Kubo, City Prosecutor Peter Carlisle, Circuit Court Judges Karen Ahn and Randal Lee, District Judges Fa’auuga To’oto’o and Reinette Cooper, Family Court Judges Jennifer Ching and R. Mark Browning, former Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro and First Deputy Iwalani White, Deputy Prosecutors Kevin Takata, Rom Trader and Jean Ireton, defense counsel Howard Luke, and many others. (Reports of service by Jack Lord, Tom Sellick, and Checkers & Pogo still need to be verified.)

“Almost every leader in the local criminal justice system from the prosecution side got their start under Chuck Marsland,” said Alm. “That’s where I began as well.”

Alm worked his post until 1994, serving as Felony Team Supervisor, Director of the District and Family Court Divisions, as well as personally handling several complex homicide cases. After that, Alm was nominated by U.S. President Bill Clinton and served as United States Attorney for six and one-half years, solidifying a reputation as a tough defender of the law. In fact, a Honolulu newspaper cartoonist featured a caricature of Alm marked with a pair of boxing gloves marked, “Law and Order.”

While Alm earned his reputation as “tough on crime” as a U.S. Attorney, that characterization has sometimes carried over into his position as judge. His recently publicized reluctance to accept “no-contest” pleas in many cases drew both praise and criticism. But Alm defends his stance, saying such pleas are frequently not appropriate as they allow defendants to dodge responsibility for his or her actions, and that successful rehabilitation involves admitting wrongdoing and committing to change.

“I believe in consequences and accountability for one’s actions,” said Alm. “But I also believe in second chances.”

Alm cites his frequent acceptance of the “deferred acceptance of guilty plea” as evidence of his tough but fair judicial philosophy. The plea allows a defendant to plead guilty and accept responsibility for their actions. But the court, in essence, does not accept the plea during the deferral period. If the defendant abides by the conditions of the plea and stays out of trouble, the conviction isn’t entered on their record. Alm likens it to “the Aloha Spirit in action.”

“The deferred acceptance of guilty plea is especially useful when young people come before the court,” Alm said. “One of the things I try to do is get them to understand the importance of having a clean record. I stress that if they don’t understand the importance now, they certainly will in the future. Some kids do some dumb things at times. They think only of today and not about tomorrow. I stress that someday they may want to get married, want to start a career. In court, I tell them if you have a criminal record, anyone can go to State Attorney General’s office and look it up at the Criminal Justice Data Center. I ask them, if they apply for a job and the owner has a choice between them and someone with a clean record, who would the owner pick? Most of the young people understand the choice.”
While demonstrating concern and compassion, Alm believes in personal accountability. He believes in clear consequences for negative behavior, the sooner the better.

Certainty and swiftness of the consequences is what effects people’s change in behavior in most cases, not the length of punishment,” said Alm. “All of life has consequences. "

"When someone appears before me in court, they’re at an intersection between their own life and the law. The place to deal with that is in court. In many cases, we use the court as a shocking experience, a wake-up call to let people know that their actions have consequences and that they have to change. If they in fact plead guilty or are found guilty by a jury, we need to fashion an appropriate sentence so they hopefully never come back into the system.”

Sometimes the appropriate sentence includes jail or prison time. Alm estimates upwards of 75 percent of the crimes committed in Hawaii are drug related. And substance abusers still need to be held accountable for their actions. But simply incarcerating the addict isn’t enough. The addiction goes untreated and the thinking and behavior remain the same. That’s why Alm is very supportive of the KASHBOX Program at Waiawa Correctional Facility. KASHBOX is an acronym for the core principles of Knowledge, Attitude, Skills, Habits, Behaviors, Opinions and the, “X” or unknown factor. Through this intensive program, the inmate can address the addiction and behaviors that sent them to prison.

“KASHBOX is an excellent program, we need more like it and as a judge, I’d like to see funding for these types of programs for incarcerated inmates increased,” said Alm. “When you think about it, we’re already paying for their incarceration. By offering them treatment for serious addictions, we are increasing the likelihood that they won’t return to prison after completing the program and serving their sentence. Inmates get real, long-term residential therapeutic treatment. It’s run for the most part, by the inmates themselves. Many of the instructors are former clients—people who have gone through the program and are back in the community. They will call B.S. when they see it--people have to be very open and honest about the program and their problems.”

Alm is also supportive of other drug treatment programs in the community, like the Sand Island Treatment Center, Hina Mauka, and the Salvation Army ATS. He says the courts are working with various programs to address addiction problems before they escalate.

“I tell defendants, we have people that will meet you half way, but you have to meet them halfway as well,” said Alm. “I think the corrections and criminology sector is coming around to the realization that people have to change their thinking in order to change their behavior. The wonderful part of this approach is that, as human beings, we are thinking creatures. If we think, then we can change. It’s not easy, some people have been addicted for a long time, and it’s going to take a long time to address the thinking behind the behavior. And there have to be consequences when people don’t do what they have said they will do. At the same time, I see people who come through the system and they make the changes. We can pull a few levers and set up some structure, but they have to do the hard work. I really compliment them for the courage to deal with their problems and take responsibility for their lives.”

Alm’s enthusiasm for treatment programs goes back to his preventative philosophy about crime. He says Hawaii fortunately has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the nation but also is regularly in the top five for property crimes. Alm concedes part of the high property crime numbers stem from crimes against visitors. While the offenses factor into the overall number, the number of tourists coming to Hawaii aren’t counted as part of our population, so the numbers might be slightly inflated. Still, he says a large percentage of those crimes are committed to fund drug use.

“Unless an offender happens to find $10,000 on the street or have somebody who’s a good buddy and giving them all this money, there may well be crime associated with continued drug use,” Alm said. “That’s one of the reasons we are concerned with drug use, not to mention the toll it takes on the family and community.”

His years served in the courtroom as a deputy prosecutor and U.S. Attorney provided Alm with an education that went far beyond law school. He went into court day after day and did his job and watched all sides, taking notes. Alm performed his job while taking in the “bigger picture” and observing the judicial system functioning independently and dynamically. He learned about the legal process, about criminology, and most importantly, “How people work.” It was during this time that Alm realized the key was crime prevention, rather than just prosecuting crime.

“I saw the importance of working with a community to take a proactive approach to crime,” said Alm. “I helped start the “Weed and Seed Program” where we worked with the community so crime doesn’t happen to begin with. I think at that time I was part of an enlightened law enforcement
Alm in Courtroom II
Alm believes the Court can play a positive role by meeting an individual halfway, but stresses personal responsibility and effort on the part of the defendant.
community that began to see the keys were education, prevention, and treatment-- addressing the problem in the streets and neighborhoods where it started. Instead of “fighting crime,” we changed our focus to keeping things from happening before they actually started.”

Alm, who initiated the federal program in 1998, points out that many crimes begin with behavior such as public disorder, assaults, drunkenness, or drug use. But when the people and the authorities in the Weed and Seed communities began to make known that such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated, it halted potential offenses at the origin, before it actually had a chance to escalate.

“There are a lot more good guys than bad guys out there,” said Alm. “People say, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” Businesses and community groups call and ask how they can get involved. People want to help. They know crime is going to hurt our kids, so they work with law enforcement to make the community safer for everyone.”

In his present position as judge, Alm is no longer spearheading Weed and Seed, leaving it to the present U.S. Attorney, Ed Kubo, Executive Director Maile Kanemaru and others, since it is a Justice Department program.

Alm says that by the time an issue reaches the courts, things may be pretty serious – but that Courts can play a key role in setting disputes. He hopes the courts can be a place where issues are resolved peacefully, without fists or guns or other violence. “In the past it was the kings and their knights,” said Alm. “Whoever had the biggest guns, won. That’s not the way to do it. It’s my duty as a Judge of the Court to provide a neutral setting for matters to be resolved.”

But real crime prevention means raising happier, healthier, responsible kids. If kids are satisfied with their lives and have positive outlets for what they want to do, they’re less likely to get involved with drugs and negative behaviors, other crimes. It’s not a “Quick, easy solution. It’s the ‘Hard route,’ but it’s also the most important.”

You can’t put a price tag on public safety, but programs like Weed and Seed should prove cost effective over the long run, especially with Hawaii’s perpetual state of prison overcrowding. “We began the program in 1997 and in three years, the crime rate went down in Kalihi/Palama and Chinatown more than 70 percent,” said Alm. “That means thousands of fewer crimes were committed.”

Alm says his past experiences give him a good feel for what’s going on in the courtroom. He worked in the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s office for nine years, serving as a Line Deputy, Team Captain, and head of the District and Family Court division. President Clinton appointed Alm as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii in 1994 and he served in that capacity for 6 and a half years. In 2001 Governor Ben Cayetano appointed Alm as a Circuit Court Judge. The countless hours in and out of Hawaii courtrooms gave him first hand knowledge of the dynamics of the process from the ground level.

“My trial experiences at the Prosecutors office and my years as U.S. Attorney have been very helpful in preparing me as a trial judge,” Alm said. “I learned the rules of evidence, and have a good understanding of what both sides are going through as advocates in the stressful business that presenting a case is.” As a trial judge, Alm’s responsibilities are far different. The judge presides over the case. Making sure both sides abide by the rules. In simplest terms, he’s the referee or umpire. As he describes his role in the process, one begins to understand the need for impartiality.

“For a Judge, the philosophical issues of a case are not what drives the process of a trial,” said Alm. “You have rules of evidence governing everything; it doesn’t matter which side is bringing it up. In pre-trial, I go over matters with both sides and hear what evidence the lawyers believe should and shouldn’t be allowed. I have to make a lot of quick judgment calls on whether those rules are being followed, listen to any objections and rule on their validity. I look at the case law as laid out by the Hawaii Supreme Court and that’s what I follow.”

Although Alm previously served on the City prosecutor’s and U.S. Attorney’s side of the judicial process, he has worked with, and gained an understanding and respect for the defense as well. Alm credits the defense bar and gives one more reason we are, “Lucky to live in Hawaii.”

“We have a very good and vigorous Public Defender system here in Hawaii,” Alm said. “That goes for both the State and at the federal level. From my experience, I can say that’s not true across the Country. Some states don’t even have a Public Defender system. In some places, they kind of put the arm on lawyers and more or less pressure them to “volunteer” for trials. In some cases you hear real horror stories. You hear of inexperienced attorney’s handling major cases, even death-penalty cases. We are fortunate to have a solid defense bar in this State.”

Alm says he’s happy that the State Legislature recently raised the compensation for court appointed attorneys. The bill won’t go into effect until July of 2006, but raises the hourly rate paid for court-appointed lawyers from $40 to $90-dollars-an hour. It’s welcome news for the defense bar. In one instance, it was reported that only five Big Island lawyers have been willing to accept the $40-an-hour rate paid for out of court work.

“It strengthens our judicial system by attracting more attorneys who are willing to take on cases,” Alm said. “The State Judiciary has supported this for years, but the bill has often been shelved due to budget concerns. It’s good to see it finally got approved.”

Alm says one of the great things about the State is the relative concentration of resources from an organizational standpoint. Although Honolulu is listed as a major metropolitan city, he says we are still small enough that people can have a big impact if they work together.

“Unlike places on the mainland, it’s easier to get people to sit down at the table and work together here in Hawaii,” Alm said. “For example, we have four County Police Chiefs and four County Prosecutors in the State. On the mainland, Kalihi and Kahuku and all the various communities would have individual chiefs and government structures. One U.S. Attorney I met in Pennsylvania had 750 police chiefs to coordinate with. Here in Hawaii, it’s much easier to get law enforcement and all the other various agencies together and working on the issues.

Alm was born and raised in Hawaii. He recalls working at Dole Cannery several summers. He graduated from University High School. Although he has had to step back from involvement in many programs because of his position, he still looks for ways to continue serving the community. Alm takes pleasure in opening the court up to the people it serves.

“I really enjoy talking to school groups and the various community groups who visit Court,” Alm said. “As long as I’m not in trial, the door is pretty much open. Even then, folks can observe the trial and I can talk to them during recesses. It’s especially rewarding to have kids come and see how the judicial process works. We do hypothetical lessons on things like what evidence can be used and the kids get involved. From a civics standpoint, it’s a great experience for them. But also, these kids will be the people who eventually sit on juries. Educating them now will serve to make them better citizens in the future.”

Alm stresses the need for individuals to perform their civic duty in the judicial process. While some may see jury service as a burden, Alm sees it as the responsibility a citizen should embrace to support our legal system. He tapped his hand upon the desk as if he was drumming in an essential thought.

“Most jurors enjoy the process once they’ve done it,” Alm said. “I really give them a hard time if they try to avoid jury duty because you have to serve; it’s what makes this system work if you are willing to give up a few days of your life to insure it continues.”

His insistence on serving stems from his knowledge of who truly holds the power in our court system, we the people. A trial brings high-profile prosecutors and defense attorneys together, but when both sides present their evidence and rest their case, the matter of justice rest with everyday citizens.

“After all is said and done, the people have the ultimate voice,” Alm said. “That is the cornerstone of our judicial system.”

 2006, Hawaii's Most Wanted Magazine.

Judge Alm AwardedCongratulations to Judge Steven S. Alm, First Circuit Court of the State of Hawaii, for recently being honored with the John P. McGovern Award  in Washington, D.C. The Institute for Behavior and Health awarded Judge Alm for his innovative work in helping to create HOPE- (Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement.) Hawaii's Most Wanted is currently working on a new issue that will have a detailed feature on this ground breaking project.