After budget cuts and crime spikes, Alaska prosecutors struggle to keep up

Witness stand in Bethel courthouse courtroom. (Photo by Lakeidra Chavis/KYUK)

The State of Alaska does not have enough criminal attorneys, and is struggling to prosecute violent crimes, according to officials within the Department of Law.

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Budget reductions have cut the department to levels that a prosecutor working in one of the state’s most strained jurisdictions characterized as “unsustainable.” As capacity has declined, the cuts are being felt acutely in areas that have seen recent jumps in violent crime.

Between fiscal years 2014 and 2017, the Department of Law’s budget fell by 22 percent, leading to a drop in the number of prosecutors, paralegals and support staff. The figures were part of an October presentation by the Attorney General to the House Finance Subcommittee. Officials with within the department say that simply is not enough manpower to meet the need.

The reductions have made it more difficult to enforce a wide array of laws covering everything from murder to child protections.

“There are some offenses we haven’t been able to try, for lack of resources,” said Deputy Attorney Rob Henderson, who heads the division in charge of criminal cases.

There were 128 state prosecutors in 2014. By fiscal year 2017 the department had shed 22, shrinking some offices and closing others.

Officials tried to spread staff reductions evenly across the state, but this approach backfired in some ways. Crime has risen unevenly, hitting Anchorage and Western Alaska disproportionately hard. But the department didn’t realize that as it was happening, because its data lagged behind trends on the ground.

“Those two things were happening at the same time, so you were taking it in the blind,” explained Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth during a recent interview.

“In ’15 and ’16, crime really skyrocketed in a bunch of different areas,” Lindemuth went on, “but we didn’t know those numbers at the time when we experienced the cuts.”

The problem is not just volume, but also the severity of the crimes Alaskans are reporting. Anchorage, for example, saw 35 homicides in 2017, a record. The year before, 34 people were killed. Those are complicated cases, significantly tying up prosecutorial resources. According to Lindemuth, that means there’s less capacity for handling lower-level cases, including offenses the public cares about immensely, like car theft, domestic assault and kidnapping.

While Anchorage’s homicide rate and widespread complaints of property theft are the most public examples, they are symptoms of a larger problem. Other parts of the state are also experiencing a swell of violence that rarely makes it into the headlines, in regions with a much lighter media footprint.

“Our numbers of felonies have gone up substantially over the past year,” explained Tom Jamgochian, the assistant district attorney in Nome.

Jamgochian has been a prosecutor for 12 years, 10 of them in the Bush. His office is now seeing an increase in vehicular homicides, domestic violence assaults and felony drunken driving cases, he said.

“Those are the broad categories that have all seen a significant spike,” Jamgochian said.

Resources in rural Alaska are already spread thin, with small district attorneys offices in hub towns like Nome or Bethel that are responsible for cases across dozens of communities. The Nome office shares resources with its counterpart in Kotzebue. Since Jamgochian started in 2011 they’ve lost 33 percent of their staff. But the caseloads keep climbing. The prosecutor in Kotzebue has roughly 900 cases coming across her desk a year. That’s three to six times the nationally recommended caseload, according to an article in the Northwestern Law School Review.

The reductions extend beyond lawyers to support staff positions, which means attorneys like Jamgochian have absorbed more non-legal work as part of their day-to-day jobs. Overwhelmed, attorneys are becoming increasingly selective about what they bring to trial, opting not to charge as many nuisance offenses, like trespassing or disorderly conduct.

“They’re not the most serious case(s), but they do significantly affect the quality of life for the residents of this region,” Jamgochian said. “We’re simply not able to prosecute that type of case as much as we did in the past.”

The difficulties don’t end there. Cuts at the Department of Law have taken place alongside reductions at the Department of Public Safety, which includes the Alaska State Troopers. Those budget cuts have hampered what was once routine travel to outlying communities. In the past, troopers aimed to cultivate relationships and a presence through community patrols. Now, they are largely restricted to fly-outs only in response to new emergency incidents. That makes it harder to gather evidence and build strong cases, especially for certain kinds of offenses.

“Crimes that would have been reported, (like) domestic violence crimes, either aren’t being reported or if they are being reported there’s a delay in reporting because a trooper just isn’t there,” Jamgochian said. “And of course a delayed report for a domestic violence crime frequently affects whether or not we’re able to charge it.”

As the state cuts budgets, local communities with their own fiscal constraints are being asked to shoulder more of the burden.

In Anchorage, a separate legal entity handles misdemeanors in the city, things like shoplifting, trespassing or vandalism. More serious violent and felony-level crimes are referred up to state counterparts at the Department of Law.

At least, they’re supposed to be.

According to Municipal Prosecutor Seneca Theno, that normal process is not working. As an example, she laid out a recent case that appeared to be a kidnapping.

“An individual who had been detained in a truck, escaped and ran for help,” Theno explained. The person was dragged back, threatened, and punched over and over again. (Citing privacy reasons, Theno declined to identify the individual or further specifics in the case).

“That was a case that we tried to refer,” Theno said.

But state prosecutors declined.

“The response back was that those types of cases are very difficult and there wasn’t an interest in taking it,” Theno said, a note of frustration in her voice.

Last week, Theno described a handful of similar incidents to the Anchorage Assembly, examples of violent crimes that she believes state district attorneys would have taken on in the past but now can’t or won’t.

“I think it’s fair to say that they’re probably being very conservative with the resources that they do have because there are so few of them,” Theno said.

Anchorage and Juneau are the only cities in the state with their own offices for prosecuting lower-level offenses, but they aren’t equipped to handle felony cases. That means when state lawyers decline to take up more serious violent offenses, there is no option except for Theno and her team to charge a lesser crime. To Theno, that doesn’t feel like justice.

“There’s also a very emotional response to the victims, who oftentimes don’t understand why their case isn’t being prosecuted as a felony. ‘How could possibly have been injured this much and it’s not being prosecuted as a felony?'” Theno posed. “That takes an emotional toll.”

Theno is asking Anchorage Assembly members to weigh a potential expansion of her office’s scope, or possibly funding additional positions so they can charge particularly egregious offenses like repeat domestic assaults.

As part of its Public Safety Action Plan, the Gov. Bill Walker’s administration is asking the Legislature to fund five additional prosecutors this budget cycle. It’s also looking for more efficiency from technology, like video-conferencing, as a way to cut down on money spent transporting defendants for court appearances.

Those measures may get the Department of Law a little bit closer to previous capacity for prosecutions, but there’s no evidence violent crime is slowing down.

Correction: an earlier version of this story stated the Department of Law had lost 22 percent of its staff in the Criminal and Civil Divisions, not an overall budget decline of 22 percent.