Proposed budget could double Kotzebue's prosecutors
Kotzebue could see its number of prosecutors double in the near future, to two.
It's currently one of only three offices in the state with just a single prosecutor, along with Dillingham and Sitka.
"Kotzebue had one of the highest, if not the highest, caseloads in the state and we realized that was more than just that one person could manage," said Criminal Division Director John Skidmore, of the Alaska Department of Law.
Like other District Attorney offices across Alaska, Kotzebue was a victim of prior budget cuts. It used to have two prosecutors and two support staff members before cuts halved its workforce.
"For the last four or five years, the state obviously had budget crises and the Department of Law had been asked to make some reductions," explained Skidmore. "What we realized is that we had cut more deeply than we should have."
Under the state's Public Safety Action Plan, released last October, there is a new emphasis on funding portions of Alaska's criminal justice system.
The four focus areas of the plan include improving outcomes of the criminal justice system as a whole, finding and addressing resource needs, especially in rural areas, increasing access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment and addressing Alaska's opioid epidemic and issues of drug trafficking.
Within the plan, the state announced it would try to come up with a way to finance two additional prosecutors in Anchorage "given increased demand from record number of homicides."
Under its rural justice initiative, it sought funding for two additional remote prosecutor positions in Bethel and Kotzebue.
"We looked at the statistics ... across the state and we looked at a combination of how many cases were currently there and what the trends are in terms of where there were increases in felonies," said Skidmore. "That's how both Anchorage and Bethel ended up having positions added, because of the increase in felonies. Kotzebue just happened to have a large caseload historically and it has remained high. That's how Kotzebue got targeted."
These positions, through the public safety plan, have been included in Gov. Bill Walker's proposed budget for FY 2019. The governor has called for an additional $34 million to fund the plan's goals with $4.8 million of that going to bump the number of prosecutors and Alaska State Troopers.
An additional $18 million would be set aside for substance abuse treatment and $10.5 million would go toward the state's prison population, which is increasing. About $500,000 would fund public defenders.
Skidmore said he doesn't see there being a particular focus on rural or urban needs, but rather an emphasis on providing adequate staff to process cases across the state where the need is greatest.
"So, while we're not adding back every position that we cut, we certainly are trying to go back and target some of the places where we think the cuts had the greatest detrimental or negative effects," he said.
Aside from the hefty caseload, Kotzebue also struggles with being one of the only satellite offices in the state, along with the other two single-prosecutor operations.
It's overseen by the Nome office, which only has two prosecutors — not enough to help cover its load adequately.
Sitka is overseen by Juneau. Reliable and relatively fast internet connections in the area mean the two offices can share case files electronically, which is not possible between Kotzebue and Nome.
Dillingham works under the Anchorage office, which has the greatest capacity of any in the state and therefore can provide the most assistance.
"Because of its isolation, because of the small office that supervises it, and because of the bad internet connections that are in that area, all of those things combined with the caseload that was already larger than some of these other places, are really what led us to say we really need to get that position back in Kotzebue just as quickly as we can," Skidmore said.
Behind the clear need for more support staff on the ground was a call from local residents who felt their community's needs were not being met.
"Quite frankly, over the last 18 to 24 months, in talking with the public, there was a significant request or outcry from the public for additional prosecutorial services," said Skidmore. "When we cut our positions the way in which we did, you just simply cannot provide the same level of prosecutorial services the way we were before. The public said that was not the sort of cut that they were interested in seeing in state government. They wanted to have cuts in other places."
So, while state spending will be down by just under 2 percent during FY 2019 under the proposed budget, according to the Office of the Governor, money will be funneling into certain target areas more than it has in previous years.
The FY 2019 governor's proposed budget can be found online at https://www.omb.alaska.gov/html/budget-report/fy2019-budget/proposed.html.
Last year's Public Safety Action Plan can be found at http://law.alaska.gov/pdf/admin/PublicSafetyActionPlan.pdf.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.