Amid an effort by state leaders to combat crime across Alaska, the Legislature has included more than $500,000 in next year’s budget to reopen the district attorney’s office in the state’s northernmost community.
Supporters of reopening the Utqiagvik post say a local prosecutor is needed to boost efforts to fight domestic violence, sexual assault, illegal drug use and other crimes in the North Slope region of about 10,000 residents.
The Department of Law closed the office in 2016 as it sought to save money, officials said. Cases have been handled by a team of prosecutors based in Fairbanks, 500 miles away. They fly in for important meetings but deal with many matters by phone.
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin, said he inserted $534,000 for the office into the joint House-Senate conference committee budget. The money would pay for one prosecutor, and a victim witness paralegal to work with victims and witnesses as cases moves through the court system.
Olson, whose district includes the North Slope, said on Thursday that Utqiagvik residents have complained that some lower-level cases aren’t being prosecuted because the Fairbanks attorneys have to prioritize their time. The allegation was one of several points raised in a recent meeting between Alaska Native leaders and U.S. Attorney General William Barr that addressed problems with criminal justice in rural Alaska.
“When you have an onsite prosecutor it makes it a lot easier for them to make decisions and be engaged in the community,” said Olson, who chairs the Senate Finance subcommittee for the Law department.
Fred Edwards was the last prosecutor to work in the Utqiagvik office before it closed. He said the town was home to two state prosecutors not long before the office was closed.
“I don’t think the people of the North Slope Borough are getting good service now, that’s my personal opinion,” said Edwards, now an attorney for the regional borough government.
Edwards was out of town visiting family in December 2014 when the other state prosecutor at the time was killed in Utqiagvik. Alaska assistant district attorney Brian Sullivan was visiting the woman he dated when her ex-boyfriend showed up at her house and shot him.
Critics have held up that slaying to oppose the reopening of the Utqiagvik office, said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, himself a former rural Alaska state prosecutor.
“They say, ‘Well, who wants that job,’ " said Josephson, chair of House Finance subcommittee for the Law department.
But people will apply, he said.
“The hope is that’s a tragic anomaly,” he said.
Utqiagvik is the state’s only community with a Superior Court judge but no full-time state prosecutor, Josephson said.
In Utqiagvik last year, 533 cases were filed in the court, including 59 felony cases, he said. Kotzebue, a Northwest Alaska city of 3,300 with a higher caseload, has two prosecutors.
“There’s virtually no doubt in my mind a full-time prosecutor is needed in Utqiagvik,” Josephson said.
Edwards said he hears from local police who say they’re not sure prosecutors will take up their cases.
The borough police chief, Jeff Brown, was not available for comment.
“They’re frustrated with this situation,” Edwards said.
Edwards said a local, full-time prosecutor is needed for several reasons. They can work face-to-face with victims who are central to putting perpetrators behind bars. Communicating with a traumatized victim by phone isn’t an effective way to move a case forward, he said.
“This is something that needs to have a live human being present,” he said.
A local attorney is also needed to quickly advise police when officers have questions about their legal right to say, seize drug evidence, he said.
Cori Mills, a spokesman with Law department, declined to answer questions about the office, including whether low-level cases or charges are being dismissed in Utqiagvik because of the lack of a local prosecutor. She said the agency would not comment “on what may ultimately be enacted" in the budget.
In March, Mills told the House Finance subcommittee on Law that the case backlog in Barrow is no larger than in any other Alaska community.
Closing the Utqiagvik office was seen as providing the most “bang for the buck," she said. The decision didn’t reduce the overall number of prosecutors but saved money by moving the workload to Fairbanks.
The Fairbanks prosecutors conduct a lot of hearings for Utqiagvik by telephone. They fly to the town for arraignments when needed, and for trials, Mills told the subcommittee. They also handle Fairbanks cases, she said.
“I think the department feels we are handling the Utqiagvik caseload as well as we are with all our other offices,” she said.
In that subcommittee meeting, Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, said that it would be hard to find someone willing to work in Utqiagvik. Eastman was the only member of eight representatives on the subcommittee to oppose a measure from Josephson asking the Law department to study the reopening of the office.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who has line-item veto power, has prioritized fighting crime while proposing large budget cuts.
His spokesman, Matt Shuckerow, said the governor will make decisions on specific items on the budget when it reaches his desk.
He’ll “examine the budget in its entirety and make a determination at that point,” Shuckerow said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Rep. Andy Josephson’s party affiliation. He is a Democrat.