JUNEAU — As Alaska’s court system resumes jury trials after a pandemic-imposed suspension, it faces a large backlog and is seeking additional funding to meet demand.
Nearly 20,000 criminal cases are awaiting trial, a figure that has increased by 27% since the start of 2020. Some Alaskans have been forced to remain in prison while awaiting trial, and some have been temporarily released from prison to avoid the over population. The Alaska Department of Justice has also changed its prosecutorial decisions, eliminating some minor cases to focus on serious crimes.
The Alaska court system is asking the state legislature for $1.8 million to fix the problem. Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Winfree delivered the justice system’s annual address to lawmakers on Tuesday, and in his script he thanked Gov. Mike Dunleavy for asking for the money on behalf of courts, and he thanked lawmakers for considering the request.
As of January 1, there were 19,629 felony and misdemeanor cases awaiting trial in Alaska courts. That’s an increase of more than 5,000 from the same date in 2020, and the increase came even as the number of criminal cases fell sharply.
“My observation of the trial appeals that are happening in state and municipal cases is that the backlog is excruciating,” said John Cashion, an experienced defense attorney in Anchorage. “There are far more people waiting for their day in court than the justice system can accommodate.”
During the pandemic, the justice system suspended most jury trials. He attempted to resume them in October 2020, but rising case numbers caused officials to abandon that plan. Another attempt in the summer of 2021 was scuttled by the delta variant. Trials resumed in January and are still ongoing.
The vast majority of criminal cases are settled by plea deals or when prosecutors drop charges, but in the absence of firm trial dates, there have been fewer plea deals, Winfree said.
“For every 100 misdemeanor cases, one usually goes to trial. On the crime side, for every 100 crime cases, you’re going to have two or three trials. So 97% of cases don’t go to a jury,” Winfree said. Statistics can create a false impression about the size of the backlog, he said.
The justice system’s request for additional funding would allow it to rent additional temporary courtrooms and purchase equipment that could be used to set up socially distanced courtrooms. The state’s existing courtrooms are too small to allow for proper social distancing, he said.
Although trials have already resumed, prosecutors and defense attorneys are still getting used to the resumption, and the backlog could persist for some time, Winfree and others said.
John Skidmore, chief of the Alaska Law Department’s criminal division, said normal turnover means experienced attorneys have been replaced with new ones, and many of those new attorneys may never have tried a case before. He offered an analogy:
“Think of it like a football player. You place them on the field and you can battle them as much as you want. But it’s different when you play a real game on Sunday. And the more experience they have in these games, you hope, the more they develop and the better they get. It is no different in this circumstance,” he said.
The consequences for Alaskans accused of crimes are even greater. During the pandemic, the court system suspended its rules requiring a speedy trial. Winfree said in an interview on Tuesday that the decision was “painful”.
“It’s painful in this conversation to say, right now with these (COVID-19) numbers, we need to protect people who come into our courthouses, and therefore limit the (trials) we have,” a- he declared.
At the start of the pandemic, the state had about 4,700 people in prison, according to statistics maintained by the Alaska Justice Information Center at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. This figure fell to around 4,000 in May 2020, but by the end of November 2021 – the most recent data – the figure had risen back to around 4,500.
About 55% of state prisoners have not been sentenced; they are awaiting trial. This proportion is significantly higher than it was before the pandemic, according to data from the information center.
“People remained in pretrial detention and some were released,” Winfree said.
Skidmore said he has seen people brought to justice after repeatedly violating their release conditions, only to be released again.
The number of people under the supervision of the Provisional Division of the state prison system increased by 20% between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, according to figures presented to the Alaska Legislature this month . Most of the 4,700 people under surveillance were outside the prison.
Skidmore said the Law Department has changed its strategy to deal with the backlog. He declined to prosecute some less serious offenses in favor of serious offenses.
“We at the Law Department did everything we could to make sure we were reviewing the cases as closely and strictly as possible because we knew this backlog was building up,” he said.
The drop in felony cases filed was smaller than the drop in misdemeanor cases, although statewide crime rates also fell during the period, making it difficult to determine in how much of the decline was due to a decrease in crime and how much was due to prosecution decisions.
“There were probably cases that we turned down during this time, to really try to focus our resources on what we thought was most important. Whether or not we have succeeded in this change, only time will tell,” he said.