Irked by jail plan

City's effort to have state prosecute some cases surprises agencies

Posted: Sunday, June 04, 2000

The city's recent move to cut incarceration costs has left at least some social service program providers and others feeling blind-sided.

``This is ludicrous,'' said Greg Pease, Gastineau Human Services executive director.

``None of us were asked to comment on this,'' said AWARE Executive Director Annette Coggins.

The two nonprofits were among a half-dozen represented at a meeting convened Thursday with District Attorney Rick Svobodny, City Attorney John Corso and Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce. Their purpose was to come to terms with a week-old Juneau Assembly Finance Committee decision to get the state to take over prosecution of driving-while-intoxicated repeat offenses and assault cases.

That decision came after assembly members complained that putting away criminals was costing the city too much: more than $1 million per year in Juneau, as opposed to $1.5 million in Anchorage, a city with nine times Juneau's population.

``It's a case of equity,'' Corso explained at the meeting in the state courthouse.

District Attorney Svobodny begged to differ.

Under the city's new plan, his office's takeover of the city cases would mean a 60 percent increase in the misdemeanor load for his staff of three prosecutors.

``As a resident who attended the assembly meeting, I got the impression (the assembly's motivation) was simply pique,'' Svobodny said. ``Anchorage got a better deal than Juneau.''

Svobodny argued that, more than equity, the problem lies in whether prosecutions are controlled at the state or local level. State prosecutors might decide that bad checks are a priority, he said, whereas locals could want domestic violence to be the priority.

``My frustration (with the assembly's decision) was the lack of thought -- other than to save money,'' he said.

Criticizing the city's rationale that other municipalities in Alaska do not prosecute locally, Coggins of the AWARE women and children's shelter reflected that ``Juneau has been an example of a community that has taken responsibility, which means that other communities might follow our example.''

In years past, when the city attorney's office had only one prosecutor, there were few cases that were not plea-bargained, Coggins said, and penalties were not very severe.

The city took the right direction by adding a second prosecutor, which eventually meant stronger stances on plea bargains, she said. ``People are getting their hands slapped a little harder.''

Now all of that is getting flushed away, she said. ``The city had been supportive on all these points; I feel they made this decision without really thinking about it.''

The city manager is simply doing his job, said Tongass Community Counseling Center Executive Director Valerie Kelly, whose programs include court-ordered alcohol and anger-management counseling. ``I am concerned that batterers and DWI's and noncompliance offenders continue to be prosecuted, but (with a change to state jurisdiction) Tongass is not going to experience any great changes, stop any programs or lose clients.''

The problem here is part of a trend toward making decisions prior to discussion of the full impact, she said.

Under the new city plan, misdemeanants and felons charged under state statute would continue to be booked at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, held, released on their own recognizance or bail, or placed in the custody of Gastineau Human Services at its Glacier Manor contract jail and halfway house -- all of which constitutes the status quo.

Except now, because of crowding at Lemon Creek and the unlikelihood of any immediate, additional state funding forthcoming for Gastineau, some offenders might be sent to a private prison in Arizona, as some inmates from crowded state prisons are now, said Gastineau's Pease.

``(Gastineau Human Services) is at its 60-bed capacity right now,'' he said.

Further, the restrictions of capacity mean a district attorney would have to cut more -- and weaker -- deals with offenders, or simply choose not to prosecute for certain offenses, Pease said.

At the direction of assembly member Tom Garrett, Corso delivered a report to the assembly in May prescribing a number of remedies, including turning the DWI and assault caseload over to the state.

In the report, Corso suggests four ways to reduce jail costs: judicious use of suspended sentences; improved cooperation with the district attorney; alternative sentences such as in-home detention; and enactment of a vehicle forfeiture ordinance.

The city manager initiated attempts to communicate the city's quandary to state officials in 1999. The effort gained some momentum when Mayor Dennis Egan sent a letter to Gov. Tony Knowles in December 1999 requesting the mayor and governor meet to talk about it.

After suggesting city cases be handed over to the state, Egan wrote, ``Understanding this would place an immediate burden on the District Attorney's office, I would like to meet with you and Attorney General Bruce Botelho to explore options and a transition plan that spreads the cost over time.''

The governor has not responded, said City Manager Dave Palmer.

Palmer met with Department of Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh to ask that Juneau's cost for prisoners in state facilities be set at the same rate charged Anchorage. ``She was unable to offer the same rate,'' he said in a May memo to the Finance Committee. ``Anchorage has unilaterally decided to pay not more than $1.5 million, regardless of the number of prisoner days. This works out to about $23.43 per day (for Anchorage). The Department of Corrections charges CBJ $110.73 per day.''

The city manager also spoke with Deputy Attorney General Cindy Cooper and even offered her city money to help hire prosecutors. ``Ms. Cooper said that agencies could not accept outside funds because it makes the budget appear to increase at a time when budgets are being reduced,'' he said.

Palmer and the nonprofits are likely to meet this week to talk about possible solutions, said Pierce.

In the meantime, talks with the Attorney General's office and efforts to effect a solution will continue, Corso said.

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