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With Barrow DA's office closed, Dillingham is next on the chopping block

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published January 8, 2016

Alaska's budget crisis has departments reaching deeper for possible cuts, including at the Department of Law, which has already seen the closure of an office in Barrow and faces another potential closure during the upcoming fiscal year.

Gov. Bill Walker opted for the closure of the Dillingham District Attorney's Office in July, the start of the state's 2017 fiscal year. Lawmakers will decide during the legislative session whether to close the office, currently occupied by two employees.

The Dillingham office isn't the only law department asset on the chopping block. In fiscal year 2016, the department had 20 positions deleted, said Assistant Attorney General Kaci Schroeder. Twelve positions were cut from the criminal division, while the remaining eight positions were cut from the civil division, she said. The employees consisted of clerks, investigators and attorneys.

Six positions are proposed to be cut from the law department's budget in the upcoming fiscal year, Schroeder said.

"Is that our preference? No, of course not," said Criminal Division Director John Skidmore. "We would much rather prefer having district attorneys located in every community, but we just don't have the funds, or the resources."

House Bill 2001, the budget package compromise that was passed after last's year legislative session officially ended, included a $29.8 million unallocated reduction in the state's budget. Departments were tasked with figuring out where to make the cuts, said Kelly O'Sullivan, chief budget analyst for the governor.

The closure of the Barrow DA's office was the law department's response to the unallocated reduction.

Cases originating in both Dillingham and Barrow offices have been handled with the help of more central offices. Grand jury proceedings for Dillingham cases occurred in Anchorage, while the Fairbanks District Attorney's Office aided Barrow prosecutors, Skidmore said.

Skidmore said it is difficult for his department to deliver the same level of service with dwindling funds. The law department is focusing on how to deliver core services, he said.

"We're having to prioritize cases and think hard about the cases where either the evidence really isn't there or we won't have the resources to prosecute," Skidmore said. "I can't tell you that there are segments or types of crimes we're not prosecuting, because that's certainly not what we're doing. We're evaluating all cases more carefully and having to make tough choices each and every day."

Skidmore repeatedly pointed out that many other, smaller Alaska communities have long gone without locally based district attorneys -- Unalaska, Sand Point, Seward, Homer and Tok among them.

Defense attorneys from the Public Defender Agency and Office of Public Advocacy -- prosecutors' courtroom counterparts -- are dealing with cuts of their own. But the public defender for Dillingham is staying put in the Southwest community.

"I'm still here," assistant public defender Chris Lesch said during a recent interview.

The potential closure of the Dillingham District Attorney's Office is disappointing, he said. Dillingham isn't a small community from the perspective of the criminal justice system, he said. Lesch described the town as a mini-Bethel, a hub for nearby villages like Togiak and Twin Hills.

He said it was in the community's best interest to have a local prosecutor who understands Western Alaska.

"It's going to take longer to get stuff done," Lesch said. "Maybe it won't be as easy to work out cases, get dismissals when appropriate, if contact is limited with the other side."

For fiscal year 2017, the two defense attorney agencies are facing a cut of more than $600,000, though the reduction in funds could be as much as $1.8 million, said Department of Administration Commissioner Sheldon Fisher. The Department of Administration worked more than $1 million back into its budget by estimating funds it could receive from defendants partially paying for their defense. The department also will be asking to raise some of its fees associated with defense, he said.

"The reality is we will probably not collect all those fees we worked into the budget, so the actual cuts will probably be greater" than $600,000, Fisher said.

There is no planned reduction of public defenders or Office of Public Advocacy defense attorneys. OPA is hoping to hire more in-house lawyers, as hiring attorneys on contract from outside the agency is more expensive, Fisher said.

Other cost-cutting measures include leaving open positions vacant, restructuring and five days of mandatory furloughs, O'Sullivan said.

Much remains unknown for the two agencies, as their caseloads also heavily depend on the actions of other departments.