Alaska News Nightly: January 25, 2012

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Scientists New Species Living Around Underwater Volcanic Vents

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

This month a team of British scientists made headlines when they announced the discovery of a whole world of new species that live in total darkness around underwater volcanic vents in Antarctica – seaweeds, crabs and even an octopus.  These creatures can withstand high temperatures, and they consume bacteria that get their energy from the chemicals emanating from the earth, rather than the sun.  Alaska probably has species like this as well.

Alaska Delegation Responds to State of the Union Address

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska’s Congressional delegation appreciated President Obama’s call Tuesday night to cut red tape and spur employment, energy development and innovation, but the Republicans in their ranks question his plan to make that happen. The President delivered his State of the Union to a joint session of Congress in the U.S. House chamber.

Michael Alexander to Plead Guilty to Fraud

Associated Press

An Army Corps of Engineers fraud case described by prosecutors as one of the largest involving government contracting has seen a break, as a former employee has agreed to plead guilty. Court papers show Michael Alexander plans to plead guilty to bribery and conspiracy to launder money

Alexander and three other men, including another Army Corps of Engineers employee, were indicted in October on charges of participating in a bribery and kickback scheme in the awarding of $20 million in government contracts. The other men have pleaded not guilty. One of those men is Harold Babb a former manager with EyakTek, a Virginia based subsidiary of the Alaska Native Eyak Corporation. Eyak Corporation has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors say government work was directed to a favored information technology subcontractor in exchange for kickbacks that paid for real estate, fancy clothes and other luxuries.

Crime Summit Taking Place In Juneau

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Crime Summit meeting in Juneau Wednesday gathered reports and ideas from agencies and outside organizations working in and around the state’s criminal justice system.  Lawmakers and the public were able to see the Court System itself as the hub of activities in forty three location around the state – and got a view of the size of the job going on in those places.

Nancy Meade, general counsel to the Court System, reminded the Summit observers that the court is a Reactive institution. It does not control what cases are brought before it, who is arrested, or what charges someone will face. She showed more than 162,000 cases filed in the system during the last fiscal year.

“Half of all filings are minor offenses – a quarter civil and a quarter criminal.  Just so the vocabulary is clear, minor offenses are basically violations, infractions and other non-jailable offenses. These are charged on a citation or a ticket and I just think of them as traffic tickets although they include other things as well – fish and game violations, etc.  As you can see, that’s huge and they are growing,” Meade said.

She said the most complex cases are felonies – with 6,400 cases filed last year. To that is added some 4,000 old cases that require judicial review for some sort of action – such as a revocation of probation.  In nearly three quarters of those new felony cases, the defendant entered a guilty plea before actually going to trial.  Prosecutors dismiss nearly a quarter of the cases before going to trial.

“So that means almost a quarter of the people against whom felony charges are brought are considered Not Guilty, no criminal conviction at all before the trial occurs.  They’re just dismissed.   That leaves us a trial rate of less than five percent – because those were almost three-quarters and almost a quarter .  So less than five percent go to a felony trial.  And of those charged, about two percent are found guilty after a trial,” Meade said.

The Public Defender’s workload corresponds to the statistics shown by the court system.  Director Quinlan Steiner said he’s seen a steady increase in felony filings – 10 percent over the past five years.  Steiner called for earlier screening of cases to avoid often intense work that goes on for cases that never go to trial.

“That kind of resolution if done up front leads to appropriate results which benefit the system as a whole.  It benefits clients – it gets their cases resolved, the resolutions closely match the facts of the case.  And what flows from there in my opinion is a benefit to the defendant and it maximizes the rehabilitative potential,” Steiner said.

Steiner said the principal challenge to the criminal justice system is to provide an opportunity to reduce crime.  He said rehabilitative services are available to people already in the system – and they should be used to their maximum effect to reduce caseloads that are now going up.

Senate Judiciary Chair Hollis French said the exchange of information between Public Defender Steiner and Court System Counsel Meade showed the benefit of the Summit – having people with various voices in the room at the same time.

“That’s a perfect example of where we can now turn to the department of law and now say, ‘Give us some more information about why you are accepting cases only to decline them later. How much time are we spending on them. How much money are we spending on them.  How are people’s lives affected by the filing of this charge and later dismissed.  And find out more about that,” French said.

French says that new legislation in not necessarily the expected result of the Summit.   He says sometimes the best result is to get people to think freshly.

Committees Begin Overview Of Budgets

Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

House and Senate Finance Committees have begun their overviews of the budgets Governor Parnell introduced last month. And the Legislative Finance Director warned the Senate Finance Committee this week that lawmakers should consider including some appropriations in the final budget that were absent from the Governor’s plan.

Record Employment Trend Likely to Continue Into 2012

Len Anderson, KSKA – Anchorage

It looks like a second consecutive year of mild job growth for Anchorage as the city continues to emerge from the employment dip experienced in 2009.

Officials Discuss State’s Obesity Problem

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

State public health workers from across the state came together for three days of discussions in Anchorage this week on all facets of how Alaskans can be healthier.

One of the most significant health problems we’re facing as a state is obesity. Like much of the nation, the numbers of those who are overweight or obese are climbing rapidly here.

Brit Szymoniak is the survey manager for the section of women, children and family health within the state division of public health. She says more than 44 percent of Alaska women who had babies in 2010 were overweight or obese before becoming pregnant. And even more alarming is the percentage of obese young children.

Karol Fink is the program manager for the state’s obesity prevention and control program. She says obesity has doubled in Alaska in the past 20 years. And all that extra weight is expensive.

It’s the usual suspects, lack of adequate exercise, poor diet and too many sugary beverages. Fink says limiting the access of cheap soda in schools, at work places and fund raising events is one change that other states have found helpful in fighting the epidemic of obesity. She says nearly 80% of health costs are due to chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Knowing why people are getting fatter is a start, but Fink says it will take an all out effort to turn it around.

She says outreach to health care providers is another avenue to insure that just like educating smokers about the dangers of tobacco abuse, educating Alaskans about the dangers of being overweight becomes part of the consultation during visits to the doctor.

World Ice Art Championships Going On As Scheduled

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The World Ice Art Championships will go on as scheduled in Fairbanks next month. A Feb. 28 open date is set for the month long ice carving event. Things are coming together despite a venue change.

Kodiak Bear Still Awake, Active at Night

Jay Barrett, KMXT – Kodiak

A bear that lives in Kodiak appears to have insomnia. When most other bruins are curled up in their dens, tracks of one adult male have been spotted numerous times during the last week in the fresh snow.

Fish and Game biologist Larry Van Daele says the bear is apparently shy of people and has no interest in dogs, and he is almost exclusively nocturnal. Besides a few Dumpster raids, there have been no reports of property damage or aggressive encounters.

Even though the bear has not caused any trouble, Van Daele is warning people to be careful in the area.

He says it’s uncommon for a bear to be active near town this time of year, but it’s not unprecedented. Radio collar studies on other bears show that up to 25 percent of adult males do not bed down for the entire winter.