City’s public defender retiring after working more than 11,000 cases in 17 years

Attorney considers income inequality, early childhood education major factors in person’s future

Attorney Tom Wagner is retiring from his position as a contract public defender for City and Borough of Juneau. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

The numbers from the past 17 years of Tom Wagner’s life are staggering.

 

Wagner, who is retiring from being a public defender for the city at the end of this month, has handled 11,000 cases since his contract with the city began in 2000.

Many of those cases have included more than one count, Wagner said, meaning that he’s dealt with about 19,000 charges between about 4,000 clients over that time. He usually has between 80 and 100 cases open at once.

He laughed as he sat in his office in a house on Harris Street, listing off the statistics from his 17 years with the city.

“I consider that a life’s work,” Wagner said.

Wagner has been with a private practice and was also a prosecutor for the state for eight years in the 1990s. He’ll be taking cases as a public defender until Dec. 31, and expects those to wrap up in the coming months. He estimates that he’ll still practice law in some capacity, taking cases here and there.

He’s going to be downsizing, moving out of his longtime office soon. The place has quite a bit of personality. Artwork hangs on the wall depicting scenes including a man fishing on an Alaska shoreline and Lady Liberty portrayed with the Bill of Rights. A fish tank provides some ambient sound of bubbles and running water. Upstairs is a closet full of colorful ties that he’s collected over the years.

Transitioning to retired (or mostly retired, at least) life will allow him to travel a little bit more, and he’s excited to make more trips to the American Southwest. His reasoning for retiring, along with finding more time to travel, is fairly simple.

“I’ll be 70 here at the end of the month,” he said, laughing. “I think that’s enough.”

He’s learned quite a bit over the years, finding that every person he sees has a story to tell. Many people he sees only once, while others are repeat clients who struggle to stay out of trouble.

One of the root causes with repeat clients, Wagner has noticed, is income inequality. He also wholeheartedly believes that preschool education is critical in development and so much is already decided about a person’s life before he or she even starts kindergarten.

“By the time they get to school, some kids know how to read, they know their numbers, they know their colors and they know how to act in a social situation,” Wagner said. “Others don’t, and they’re kind of left at the starting gate.”

He said that in many cases, repeat clients come from backgrounds where they didn’t get a solid educational foundation early on. Wagner said he fully supports investing in pre-kindergarten education, even though it’s an expensive investment and the city might not see the results of that investment for about 20 years.

His other advice stems from his years of experience meeting interesting people. With that many interactions, dealing with around 4,000 clients over less than two decades, he wishes he would have kept a better record of the interactions he had.

“That’s what I tell young people now, is write things down,” Wagner said, “because sometimes there’s something really funny that happens and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll never forget this,’ and then a year later it’s gone.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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