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.