Cuts weaken justice for poor

Tight budget forces public defenders to work 21 hours of unpaid overtime each week

Posted: Monday, April 03, 2000

The scales of Alaska justice are moving toward imbalance, according to Rep. Beth Kerttula.

The Juneau Democrat and lawyer said state money supporting legal help for the poor is failing to keep up with caseloads in criminal and civil courts in Alaska. She's said she's been fielding calls from constituents looking for legal advice - a sign that something's wrong.

``It's an endemic problem,'' she said. ``There's not enough legal services for the poor.

``If people don't have access to justice, criminal or civil, you have a system that's going to decay. People don't get equal justice.''

A legislative audit concluded that Alaska's public defenders are putting in an average of 21 hours of unpaid overtime a week. The budget currently under consideration by lawmakers would keep them working that way.

Other lawyers, working for Alaska Legal Services Corp., serve poorer Alaskans on the civil side of the court system. The Legislature appears prepared to continue the state's $125,000 contribution to that nonprofit's budget, after cutting it early in the budget process.

The legislative audit, which determined how much work Alaska public defenders do, pointed out that they've been working more cases without getting more money for years.

Barbara Brink, director of the Public Defender Agency, said it looks like her budget will stay the same in the coming budget year. That means public defenders will continue to put in a lot of unpaid time, hammer away on their old computers, and do clerical and investigative work other lawyers don't have to worry about.

``It looks so far that things will stay pretty status quo,'' Brink said. ``I fully anticipate that cases will continue to go up and costs will continue to go up.''

The budget's going to stay the same for now, said Sen. Gary Wilken, a Fairbanks Republican who oversaw the Senate's version of the public defenders' budget for next fiscal year. Throwing money at the agency's resource problems, he said, isn't the way to go.

``We need to make a concerted effort . . . to restructure how the public defenders work in Alaska,'' Wilken said. ``We need to look at the supply side of this equation.''

Other states are looking into doing public defense differently, he said. By re-classifying what crimes and what income level require public defense and using alternatives to classic plea bargaining, the system can be improved without cash. He said he'll be studying the issues in the interim, and will make some proposals to his fellow lawmakers next year.

Wilken, along with most Alaska judges, agreed that public defenders are overworked. Not everyone thinks so. Most prosecutors in the state told auditors the public defenders are working as much as they should.

Rick Svobodny, Juneau's district attorney, doesn't spend much of his time worrying over what the Legislature is doing to the size of his budget, he said. But he's not all that sympathetic with the plight of Southeast's public defenders.

``They still outnumber us,'' he said.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, there are three state prosecutors and four public defenders. In Sitka, there's one each. In his experience, he said, the defense attorneys have time to do their jobs, and are adequately defending their clients.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks said the wheels of justice don't seem to be out of alignment because of public defender funding. He said Juneau's public defenders are committed. Their clients are well represented, he said.

Brink said Juneau's public defenders have fewer cases than those in other towns, and more than some defenders in other towns. The problem areas are rural - Bethel, Dillingham and Barrow - and in areas where population is growing quickly, such as Palmer, she said.

Some people turn to the Alaska Legal Services Corp. when they can't afford a lawyer to file or fight a civil lawsuit, such an attempt to seek damages or an eviction.

A state grant covers $125,000 of the organization's budget. It pays for about three of 19 lawyers working for the nonprofit law firm. Those three lawyers handle a total of about 450 cases a year.

The funding was unenthusiastically cut in a House subcommittee, with those who suggested the cut saying it was made with some confusion. The Senate's operating budget includes the state money for the 2001 fiscal year.

Robert Hickerson, the organization's executive director, is keeping his head down over the grant. He said he's hoping it will continue with the next fiscal year. Though the grant isn't a life-and-death issue - being a part of a $2.9 million annual budget that includes federal and other grants - its loss would further shrink legal service's operation, Hickerson said. That operation has been shrinking for a while.

In 1983, the state spent $1.2 million on the program, which had 80 staffers in 13 towns. Now, there are four permanent offices and three temporary ones. Legal services closed 2,878 cases in 1999, with 354 handled by outside attorneys working for free, Hickerson said.

The firm's cases generally apply to food, shelter and personal safety - including landlord-renter disputes, divorces and injury claims. Fewer lawyers would mean fewer suits filed on behalf of poor Alaskans, he said.

``Every penny we lose is a step back from full coverage,'' Hickerson said.

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