Dunleavy administration disputes public defender caseloads, but recommends reforms

Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka speaking during a press conference at the Atwood Building in Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage).

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration unveiled a new report that looks at the status of public defenders across Alaska. It paints a mixed portrait of the Public Defender Agency, which is tasked with representing the rights of Alaskans without the means to pay for private legal defense.

The analysis was initiated earlier this year, before a number of news stories focused on whether or not the state-funded defense attorneys are overburdened by unmanageably high case-loads. Speaking about the findings at a press conference in Anchorage Monday morning, Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said that — contrary to some of the claims made in the press ⁠— when assessed against professional metrics, Alaska public defenders have caseloads comparable to their counterparts in other states.

“That simply gives us a constitutional threshold. That does not mean that we’re operating the best that we can,” Tshibaka said. “Are we operating within constitutional standards? Yes. That’s good news. Are we operating the best that we can for the public defender agency? No, we’re not. That’s what the report says at a really high level.”

The report says that public defender caseloads are reasonable when compared to established professional measures. But the analysis also says those measures may be outdated, that the agency too frequently passes off clients because of ethical conflicts, that it has puffed up its own metrics for assessing caseloads and that there are major issues recruiting and retaining lawyers in Alaska.

A number of recommendations in the report highlight a need for more support staff, better compensation for attorneys and improvements in technology.

Democrat Rep. Matt Claman represents Anchorage in the Alaska Legislature, where he chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

“It reflects the real complexities we face in our criminal justice system,” he said of the report Monday afternoon.

Claman has worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, and echoed one of the report’s recommendations that there should be a uniform way to measure caseloads. But he said it’s strange that a political appointee in charge of the Department of Administration would be involved to this degree in reforming an agency that is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy from the executive branch.

“To see this kind of a report that’s got a whole series of recommendations, and a press conference as well, I think certainly raises concerns,” Claman said.

According to Tshibaka, the report is not a political document, and was assembled from data and interviews. Tshibaka’s ability to conduct such an audit comes from a February memorandum issued by Governor Dunleavy, authorizing her to investigate government efficiency and effectiveness on his behalf through a new entity called the Oversight & Review Unit.

In the last fiscal year, the public defenders agency saw an attrition rate of 23 percent, according to the report. Departing defense attorneys told investigators contributing factors were heavy caseloads, a need for more administrative staff, and insufficient recruitment efforts.

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