Last week's news release from Attorney General Talis Colberg announcing the appointment of three new district attorneys contained a cryptic remark about the position in Fairbanks.
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The attorney general said the new Fairbanks district attorney will bring a lot of experience to the "challenging position" in Fairbanks.
If it is challenging because of the steady turnover of assistant attorneys at the Fairbanks office, simply bringing in a new top attorney for Fairbanks might not solve the problem. One need only look at the Department of Law's own budget documents over the past several years to understand why: a high caseload and pay that doesn't compete well with the private sector.
Retaining attorneys is repeatedly listed among the top challenges facing the Department of Law. Here's the assessment from one of the department's budget documents for fiscal year 2008, which began July 1:
"The high caseload is only one of the factors that contribute to high attorney turnover and makes private practice more attractive to both entry-level but, especially, experienced attorneys. Attracting qualified attorneys to rural locations such as Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow has long been a challenge, but we are also experiencing difficulties with recruiting and retaining attorneys in our urban locations. Uncompetitive salaries are a factor that needs to be addressed in the Department of Law. We often find that law school graduates can't afford to pay for their student loans and also support themselves and their families on the wages Law offers freshman attorneys."
Law enforcement is a two-part process: catching the bad people and prosecuting the bad people. The public regularly clamors to have more bad people rounded up, and police departments are able to get grants to hire more officers to supplement their regularly funded force. But a successful effort to continually arrest more people causes more work for a district attorney's office, whether in Fairbanks or some other part of the state. Prosecutors need help.
The Department of Law has continually outlined the problem. It has offered two pointed reasons for the turnover among its attorneys. Is no one listening?
If a shuffling of district attorneys in some offices is all that is being done, the action may amount to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The Legislature and governor need to act.