Public Defender Agency caseload may be compromising ability to meet ethical and constitutional obligations, report finds

A courtroom in the Anchorage Federal Building. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress)

The state’s Public Defender Agency has issued its response to a critical state report, saying that Alaska shouldn’t join other states in failing to represent low-income defendants.

The agency made the statement in response to a 2019 report from Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration. The report said public defender caseloads are reasonable when compared to established professional measures.

The agency issued its response in late December, more than a month after the initial report.

The agency counters several of the points in the report and wrote that “the increased need for the Agency’s services is outpacing its available resources and may be compromising its ability to provide those services consistent with its ethical and constitutional obligations in every case to which it is assigned.”

The agency agreed with much of the report, especially that it needs to improve staff recruitment and training. But the agency disagreed with national caseload standards cited by the report. The agency said these standards vastly underestimate the amount of time necessary to represent defendants.

“Alaska should not join other states’ failure to provide ethically and constitutionally adequate representation,” the agency wrote in the response.

The Public Defender Agency wasn’t available for comment on Tuesday.

State Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, said he’s glad the agency provided a response.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people who have worked in the Public Defender Agency who are very concerned about understaffing,” he said.

Fields said that having too few public defenders will slow down the state’s ability to prosecute cases.

A spokesperson for Dunleavy said in a written response to questions that the Department of Administration is cooperating with the agency and the courts to maintain defendants’ rights to effective legal representation and a fair trial.