Chief justice: Crime is down, prosecutions up across state

Bad news: number of judges hasn't grown with rising caseload

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2000

The news from the Alaska Court System is good.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Matthews said the number of felony cases the courts are handling has risen 26 percent over the past 10 years. But the crime rate in Alaska has declined 7 percent in the last decade.

Those two numbers taken together are cause for cheer, Matthews said.

``Fewer crimes per capita are committed, more of them are solved and more criminals are brought to justice,'' he said.

Matthews gave his annual report on the State of the Judiciary to the Legislature on Wednesday.

Despite that good news, there are areas of concern, he said.

While the nontraffic caseload has grown at about the same rate as the population - 14 percent - the number of trial judges has increased just 4 percent.

And two types of cases have grown at a rate faster than the population - felonies and children's cases. Those, he said, are especially labor intensive.

The increased caseload is a particular problem in Bethel, where judges from Fairbanks and Anchorage are flying in to help an overworked court. That is inexpensive and inefficient, he said.

``There is no longer any question in our view that an additional judge is needed in Bethel,'' Matthews said.

The court system won't seek a budget increase for the fiscal year 2001 to hire a new judge, but that will be requested the next year.

The system's budget for the upcoming fiscal year does ask for more money, including $1.45 million for the second phase of a centralized case management system.

Court officials are also asking for another $109,800 so jurors' pay can be raised from $25 to $27.50 a day. The rate hasn't gone up since 1981, he said.

``You can imagine how much the cost of living has increased since then,'' he said. Previous attempts to get larger increases in the pay have failed, so the court system is now asking for small raises for jurors.

``We believe our system should at least defray out-of-pocket costs,'' Matthews said.

He also reminded legislators of the importance of judicial independence. Judges need to make decisions without worrying about public opinion or personal repercussions.

``We are proud and jealous of our constitutional freedoms, but often they are not popular when applied in actual cases,'' he said.

Some legislators have been unhappy with Supreme Court rulings in recent years.

Two years ago when legislators passed constitutional amendments dealing with prisoners' rights and gay marriage, the Supreme Court took one of those off the ballot and changed the wording in the other. The court said the proposed amendments, as written, were actually revisions, which could only be done by a state Constitutional Convention.

Some legislators were angered by that decision, and this year are considering a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature power not only to amend the constitution, but to make more wide-ranging revisions, upon voter approval.

Matthews did not mention any particular legislation in his discussion of judicial independence.



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