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ANCHORAGE - A $2 million federal grant over three years will allow the state to add two prosecutors to lower the criminal caseload in rural Alaska.
The new prosecutors will operate out of Anchorage and assist 84 prosecutors in the state's 13 rural offices, handling everything from murder to minors consuming alcohol, said Susan Parkes of the state Department of Law's criminal division.
"It is going to have a significant impact just to have that release valve," she said.
Alaska's district attorneys are processing more cases, she said. In the Kotzebue office, where there is just one prosecutor, 166 felony cases were handled in 2003 and 212 last year, she said.
Prosecutors are forced to rank cases and they do not have enough hours to prepare and go to trial on every case.
"We try not to let caseload be a consideration when we look at high-priority cases - sexual assaults and violent crimes - but certainly when you look at property crimes or misdemeanors, it is really the only control you have as a prosecutor over your caseload," Parkes said. "Sometimes caseloads influence dealing a case."
Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said arrest numbers for serious crimes have remained steady over several years except for assaults, which have increased. In Western Alaska in 2000, 125 people were arrested on assault charges. In 2004, 270 were arrested.
Trooper Lt. Keith Mallard, deputy commander of Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement, said the jump can be partially attributed to an increased effort by troopers to fight rural crime.
One of the troopers' main targets is bootleggers who bring alcohol into dry villages.
"Drug and alcohol abuse is the root crime in all of the crime out in our rural communities," Parkes said.
Troopers say that the problem is everywhere but that Western Alaska is one of the hardest hit areas.
In 2004, seven of the eight homicides in Western Alaska involved alcohol, troopers said. Also for last year, more than 60 percent of assaults involved alcohol.
At least a third of rapes involved alcohol. Troopers said their paperwork does not require noting that alcohol was involved and the true number may be higher.
Trooper Michael Duxbury, who once worked in Aniak and now investigates alcohol and drug offenses in rural Alaska, said he hopes someday to have enough prosecutors to process arrests on lesser crimes such as juvenile drinking, drunken driving on four wheelers and minor disturbances.
"How much of the death - the suicides, falling out of boats, drowning, the driving on snowmachines and running into thin ice, in addition to the violent crime we see, is due to alcohol? A great deal."