A state House committee agreed Monday to hire more of the state attorneys that defend Alaskans too poor to hire their own lawyers, in an effort to avoid gridlock in the state's criminal justice system.
The House Finance Committee voted 7-4 to budget $1 million more for the state's public defender agency; the "yes" votes came from members of the largely Democratic House majority coalition.
The state's top public defender, Quinlan Steiner, warned last week that without the money, his agency would have to start trying to refuse new cases. His attorneys, he said, are already overworked, and their workload is expected to continue increasing next year after the state hires more prosecutors in response to a public outcry over crime.
Alaskans are constitutionally entitled to state-paid legal defense if they're too poor to hire their own attorney.
The money approved by the committee Monday would add four attorneys to Steiner's staff of 100, and it would also cover a new support position and some trial expenses. The finance committee's majority members rejected a proposal by Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt, a minority member, to eliminate the positions of 10 experienced attorneys and replace them with 15 inexperienced ones.
"The problem we have is a management issue, not a money issue," Pruitt said. He added: "I'm sure there's an opportunity to shuffle it around a little bit."
Steiner told committee members that Pruitt's proposal would make his agency "incompetent" to handle high-level cases.
"We'd be left with no acting supervisors regionally or in our Anchorage office," he said.
The full House budget proposal is expected to move from the finance committee to a vote on the floor next week.
It then heads to the state Senate, where the Republican-led majority favors lower state agency spending.
The Senate budget subcommittee that will initially consider the public defenders' $1 million request will not accept it, said the subcommittee's chairman, Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens.
He cited rules the subcommittees have adopted that bar them from adding new government jobs. But he said the public defenders' request "certainly needs to be considered" by the full Senate Finance Committee.
"I don't see how we can not do this," Stevens said. "What does that mean in the end, if we add new positions? Is somebody going to have to be eliminated in some other place? That's the decision that the finance committee has to make."