Public defender agency to refuse some cases, citing staffing

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A state agency representing Alaskans who can’t afford their own attorneys intends this month to stop taking clients charged with serious crimes due to staff shortages in parts of southwest and western Alaska.

Alaska Public Defender Agency chief Samantha Cherot briefed the judges overseeing the Nome and Bethel judicial districts on Tuesday about the plans, the Anchorage Daily News reported. The agency asked the presiding judges to direct superior court judges in those regions not to assign the agency new cases for specific crimes, covering the most serious and complex crimes, beginning Feb. 13.

A spokesman for the Alaska Court System declined to respond to questions from the newspaper about the options available to data subjects.

Cherot said the agency has long struggled to recruit and retain qualified lawyers, with challenges compounded by a pandemic-related backlog in criminal cases. Recent resignations at Bethel and Nome have left the agency without enough experienced attorneys to handle new complicated cases, she said.

“With a few additional attorneys with the necessary training and experience to handle unclassified and A-crimes, the situation could quickly improve. Otherwise, the agency will need time for its existing qualified attorneys to resolve many of their pending cases before they can ethically accept new cases, or for newer attorneys to gain the necessary experience to handle these types of cases,” Cherot said.

The agency has hired private lawyers and will continue to do so, Cherot said. However, finding enough private attorneys with the skills and experience to represent those charged with serious crimes and fill the gaps has been difficult.

The agency has located two private attorneys who may be willing to represent individuals charged in Nome Superior Court, but no other private attorneys for Bethel cases.

While lawmakers approved pay increases for prosecutors last year and more public defender positions in recent years, the problem has not been completely solved, Cherot said. Applicants often lack the qualifications to take on the most complex cases immediately. And recruiting is challenging, she said, with attorneys citing more lucrative compensation and a manageable workload elsewhere as reasons for not wanting to work for the agency.

James Stinson, director of the state Office of Public Advocacy, which is asked to represent clients when public defenders face a conflict of interest, said the office would resist if ordered by courts to take the burden of cases to share, which are usually handled by the Public Defender Agency.

The legislature never intended this office to be “the frontline defense agency of the state. We are not staffed, funded or structured,” Stinson wrote in an email.

As an option, he cited an administrative regulation that would allow the court to appoint private lawyers for qualified clients.

Jeff Turner, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said the governor’s additional budget requires an additional $3.1 million for the Office of Public Advocacy and the Public Defender Agency.

Dunleavy’s office “will work with the Administration Department and the Legislature to determine whether this level of financial support to the Office of Public Advocacy and the Public Defender Agency is sufficient to address the emerging problem of case counts in Bethel and Nome,” Turner said via email.

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