WAILUKU When Shackley Raffetto was sworn in as a 2nd Circuit judge 18 years ago, it wasn't unusual for him to preside over a drug trial every week.
With state law then requiring a five-year prison term for defendants convicted of possessing even trace amounts of methamphetamine, many opted to fight charges at trial.
But over the years, Raffetto helped take the court in another direction.
Judge Raffetto. This photo was taken shortly before Raffetto’s retirement Monday.
RAY MAINS photo
Appointed administrative judge in 2000 and chief judge for the 2nd Circuit in 2009, he worked to help start the Maui Drug Court program, offering intensive treatment and supervision as an alternative to incarceration.
He was chairman of the Judiciary's Committee on Jury Innovations for the 21st Century, which resulted in allowing jurors to submit written questions for witnesses, to take notes and to be instructed on the law before hearing attorneys' arguments.
Raffetto opened his courtroom to distinguished judges from Russia, Mongolia and Thailand, some of whom sat beside him on the bench for jury trials, in a unique program allowing them to see the U.S. justice system at work.
"I enjoyed being a judge," said Raffetto, whose last day on the bench was Monday, three days before he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
"The thing about being a judge is you have tremendous opportunity, because of the nature of the office, to do things," he said. "Through the creative use of judicial resources, we can accomplish a lot."
In the months and weeks before he retired Monday, others called attention to some of Raffetto's accomplishments.
In October, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald selected Raffetto as 2011 Jurist of the Year, recognizing both his work as a judge and public service contributions in the community.
Two weeks ago, new graduates, alumni and Mayor Alan Arakawa recognized Raffetto as he presided over his last Drug Court graduations on Maui and Molokai.
And last week, the Maui County Bar Association honored him with a Career Achievement Award.
"Judge Raffetto pioneered the Maui Drug Court program, which has benefited the community by addressing the drug problem on Maui," said Wailuku attorney Matson Kelley, president of the Maui County Bar Association. "This program has benefited everyone. I have witnessed the program assist those who have entered the criminal justice system due to drug-related offenses overcome their denial about their addiction, provide guidance for rehabilitation and re-establish self-esteem. This program has also offered tremendous hope for the families of those going through the Drug Court.
"In addition, the data from the Drug Court reflects that the recidivism rates for Drug Court graduates is considerably lower than the alternatives, such as serving a prison term or probation. Accordingly, it has prevented many crimes from occurring and therefore prevented many people from being victimized by crime and saved taxpayers a considerable amount of money."
Compared with the state recidivism rate of more than 50 percent, the recidivism rate among Maui Drug Court graduates is 16 percent, adding up to an 84 percent success rate, Raffetto said. Unlike other programs that monitor graduates for three or five years, he said the Maui Drug Court tracks each of its 390 graduates annually, measuring recidivism by whether a graduate is convicted of another felony offense.
Raffetto said that he instituted the continual tracking, because "I want to know whether this program works."
"I want to be able to tell the taxpayers we're spending their money in the most intelligent way possible," he said.
As people have learned of the program's success, "people are thinking more that it's possible to change," he said.
Before the Maui program started, the Oahu Drug Court was operating as a pilot project with no plans to expand to Maui. "But once I realized the disparity of treatment, which wasn't right, I was really motivated to get something like that here as soon as possible," Raffetto said.
Then-2nd Circuit Administrative Judge E. John McConnell supported the effort, along with the police department, prosecutor's office and public defender's office. "We abandoned our traditional adversarial roles in order to try this new way of dealing with people in the criminal justice system," Raffetto said.
Obtaining some funding from a grant for the Oahu Drug Court, he and Lillian Koller, who was the first Maui Drug Court administrator, worked to get the program operating in a year.
Raffetto was the presiding judge from the start in August 2000. Original plans called for Molokai to be part of the program, but that was put on hold for lack of funding until several years ago when then-state Rep. Sol Kaho'ohalahala stepped in, Raffetto said.
Over the years, nearly 800 drug-related criminal offenders have participated in the program. Although not everyone successfully completes Drug Court to have felony charges dismissed or terms of probation shortened, many leave with information that they can draw on when they are ready to make changes in their lives, Raffetto said.
"So when they make up their minds to quit, they know what to do," he said. "They know how to go to a meeting, they know what the steps are. They have heard accurate information. They're enabled. I consider those people to be temporary failures. They're either going to die or quit. The question is when."
Defendants can enter Drug Court while awaiting trial before conviction, as well as while on probation, on parole or in prison and nearing release. "A person at any stage in the criminal justice system can come into our program," he said.
One key to the Drug Court's success, Raffetto said, is its use of neurolinguistic programming using practical techniques to address criminal thinking and addictive thinking, as part of the treatment run by Aloha House on a contract.
"I think it's really critical," Raffetto said. "If you're not helping people think differently, you're not really getting them the help they need."
Raffetto has met one on one with each participant.
"He tries his best to have a personal connection with each and every one of them," said Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim, who had been assigned to Drug Court as a deputy prosecutor.
Deputy Prosecutor Tracy Jones, who has handled drug cases in Raffetto's courtroom for the past four years, said the judge has given defendants opportunities to succeed, particularly through Drug Court.
"He gives lots of people breaks," Jones said. "The more you need them, the more you get them. But he'll make his expectations really clear, which is why I think he was so effective in Drug Court."
At graduation ceremonies in Raffetto's courtroom, many defendants speak about how they liked their interaction with the judge, Jones said.
Raffetto said most Drug Court participants are from dysfunctional families.
"It's really sad that they have been treated like that," he said. "The effect of the drug is to make them amoral. They have gone out and done terrible things, neglected their children. When they come to terms with that, they can change.
"For me, it's interesting. I like to talk to them. They're nice people. Some of them stepped off the wrong way. The people who are not serious, they need to go to prison, pay their debt to society and move on."
Raffetto said the Drug Court program emphasizes the positive, with participants given rewards as they progress before a final phase of drug testing and minimal supervision to test how they would fare on their own.
With 120 defendants participating in various phases of Drug Court and another 80 waiting to be accepted, the program has helped lighten the criminal caseload, while monitoring defendants so they don't commit additional crimes, Kim said.
He said most participants are obtaining the equivalent of high school diplomas, going to college or finding jobs. Along with repaying victims, who are often family members, participants create a restorative justice plan to do something positive, such as yardwork or construction, for victims.
"It builds a better relationship. It works for both parties," Kim said.
Raffetto said that there are nearly 800 new felony cases in 2nd Circuit Court each year, 95 percent of them drug-related. On average, each case may have four criminal charges.
"That's a huge harm to the community," he said. "If you've got a program that saves 84 percent of the people that go into it, you should be emphasizing it. We should be using that ability to effect change like that. The more we do that and the more judges are empowered to do that, you're going to see the Judiciary have a much bigger positive impact.
"The future of the Judiciary ought to be in the Drug Court-type program," he said. "We have a program that's proved to work. Why wouldn't you double down on it? We could have a Drug Court program with 200-plus people easily if we had the money."
A California native, Raffetto first visited Hawaii to ride big waves on Oahu's North Shore in 1960 after he graduated from high school in Ventura. He returned "almost 10 years to the day" after earning a law degree from Hastings College of Law in California and a master's of law in taxation from New York University.
He began practicing law in Hawaii in 1971 and was in civil practice with an emphasis on tax law, business law, business litigation and general civil litigation.
Raffetto was a per diem judge for District and Family courts starting in 1987 before being appointed to the 2nd Circuit in June 1994.
"Being able to transition into full-time public service was what I really wanted to do," he said. "As a lawyer, you can still serve the community, but you're still a businessman."
Kim, who has known Raffetto since his days as a per diem judge, said, "He enjoys the formality of the courtroom.
"He runs his courtroom very efficiently because he knows so much law," Kim said. "There's no wasted time in his courtroom. The attorneys appreciate the fact that he can get in and out.
"He does not allow any shenanigans between the parties. Lawyers are expected to treat each other professionally."
Attorneys know they need to do their research before they enter Raffetto's courtroom, Jones said.
"He expects that everyone comes in prepared to participate," Jones said. "The level of interaction that happens in the courtroom is higher because everybody's prepared. That's what makes working with him so awesome. I have great respect for him."
Often, Raffetto will ask questions of attorneys that "highlight what the actual issue is," Jones said.
"He's truly mastered the practice of law," she said. "Every day in his courtroom, you walk away learning something about how to be a lawyer and what it means to seek justice."
Kim said that he and other attorneys like jury innovations including allowing jurors to submit written questions for witnesses.
From the questions he has seen, Raffetto said, "We realize jurors expect the police and prosecutor to do their job.
"I think it really does work for the benefit of justice."
He once declared a mistrial when questions posed by a juror "showed me they were not going to follow my instructions," he said.
Kelley said Raffetto also has assisted the bar association with establishing the Maui bench-bar committee, providing an avenue for the Maui bar and Judiciary to address issues, including access to justice.
"Through the bench-bar committee I learned that Judge Raffetto is very concerned about the operations at the courthouse, concerns of the local bar, the timely administration of justice and the experience that a litigant encounters when he or she comes to court," Kelley said. "I found his concerns and quick response encouraging considering how busy Judge Raffetto has been with his other programs."
Raffetto is one of few who have served as both a state and federal judge.
He spent three years in the Marine Corps Reserve and 23 years in the Navy Reserve, including five years as a court-martial judge, often traveling to Japan and Guam to hear cases. He retired as a captain in the Navy Reserve at the mandatory retirement age of 60.
"This is the second time I've had to leave something that I love," he said.
Raffetto has no particular plans, though he will continue to judge international moot court competitions and likely return to China, where he presided over the first mock jury trial at a law school in March.
"I'm going to explore mediation and arbitration and other ways to continue to be of service," Raffetto said.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.