Alaska is on the edge of a constitutional crisis as underfunded public defenders could start declining cases

The Juneau Court House across the street from the Alaska State Capitol building. (Photo by gillfoto/Wikimedia Ccmmons)

The budget is coming together this year with a renewed focus on public safety. The state is looking to add new prosecutors and law enforcement officers, reversing cuts that forced prosecutors to decline to bring to trial a dizzying amount of cases over the last few years.

But the increased tough-on-crime spending, as one testifier pointed out on Thursday, is just on “one side of the table.”

Left out in the cold so far are the state’s public defenders who provide the constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel to poor Alaskans unable to hire their own legal representation. They’re looking down the barrel at years of projected increases in caseloads that next year will put many public defenders at a place where they’ll simply no longer have enough time in the week help people navigate plea deals, the bail system and trials.

“Our projected caseloads are going to exceed the maximum ethical caseload,” said Quinlan Steiner, the head of the Public Defender Agency in an interview with The Midnight Sun. “In the event that actually happens and we don’t’ have the resources to address that, I would be required to attempt to refuse cases because ethically you’re not permitted to accept more cases that you can handle.”

He said the projected caseload, which would have public defenders shouldering as much as a weighted average of 160 cases at a time, would require the state’s public defenders to work upwards of 94 hours a week. Public defenders, he said, won’t be able to ethically provide adequate representation to their clients.

He said public defenders will be forced to try to decline cases, a move that would create a mountain of problems and not just for the poor Alaskans charged with crimes.

“You’ll certainly have instances where mistakes will be made and that will have an impact on the case,” Steiner said. “If investigations aren’t done, there may be actual defenses in cases of actual innocence, there’s also going to be increased delay as we are unable handle the tasks that we’re supposed to in a timely manner. If we’re forced to take the cases that are beyond our maximum, we’ll be forced into delaying those cases so we can complete those tasks that we’re required to do. … That’ll just increase delay, which will increase cost and increase litigation across the system.”

The impacts of public defenders reaching their limit and declining cases is just as worrying as is the state’s decision to leave thousands of criminal cases go unprosecuted. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit reporting effort on the criminal justice system, looked just what happens when state’s run out of money for public defenders.

People in the states studied were stuck in jail longer while waitlists for a public defender grew, cases took longer to resolve and resolutions could be challenged if defendants have ground to argue their representation wasn’t adequate.

Public defenders in Missouri took the unusual step of attempting to force their governor, a former private attorney, to handle a case though it didn’t work.

Many of the states facing similar funding problems as Alaska have run into trouble with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued states where overworked and underfunded public defenders offices have tried to turn down cases.

“If the state begins declining to provide public defenders, the entire criminal justice system could break down,” said ACLU of Alaska spokesman Casey Reynolds (a former writer for The Midnight Sun). “It is no overstatement to there would immediately be a constitutional crisis with a flurry of competing lawsuits as defendant’s rights to due process, speedy trials, and adequate defense are immediately violated. If lawmakers want to sound tough on crime, then they have to find the money to pay for it. Their inability to solve Alaska’s fiscal crisis is not sufficient grounds for violating Alaskan’s basic legal rights.”

The request

Steiner said four additional attorneys for the Public Defender Agency would be needed to handle the projected increases just for the upcoming fiscal year. He said increases are expected in the following year, too. It would cost the state about $1,034,000 for the attorneys and the associated costs.

The Walker administration appears relatively unconcerned about the public defenders’ situation. In an interview with the Anchorage Daily news, budget director Pat Pitney said the administration is looking at the criminal justice system “holistically” and the priority is restoring prosecutors and troopers.

“Everyone has felt the constraint, but prosecutors and troopers the most,” she said in an interview. “We need to keep the whole system on balance, and so we’re addressing law and troopers.”

While the defenders feel they need a larger budget, she added, “what we don’t want to do is get the system out of balance.”

If there’s a higher need for criminal defense, the state will pay for it, she said.

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