Opinions

OPINION: Alaska has a crisis hiring and keeping competent state attorneys. Here’s how to fix it.

Attorney General, Brady Building, DOL, Department of Law, Dept of Law, anchorage

Public safety is one of the essential duties of government in our country. The Alaska Constitution guarantees the right to be secure in our persons and homes, the need to protect the public, and the right to speedy and public trials. After years of high turnover among our state prosecutors and their civil counterparts — in all, there are nearly 600 public sector attorneys in Alaska — we are experiencing a recruitment and retention crisis, and we resolved to stop the hemorrhaging this year.

We were the chairs of the Department of Law House Finance Subcommittee and the House Judiciary Committee, respectively. Retaining competent prosecutors and child-in-need-of-aid, or CINA, attorneys is the most important thing we can do to improve public safety in Alaska.

We learned that an entry-level attorney working for the attorney general’s office begins at a salary of about $60,000. At the same time, their first-year equivalents in Montana, the Municipality of Anchorage and the City and Borough of Juneau earn $81,000-$91,000 per year.

Put simply, Alaska’s prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals are seriously underpaid. The results are predictable: there are fewer and fewer applicants for more and more vacancies. We lack the capacity to prosecute cases brought by troopers and police.

How did things get to this point? Non-union employees must rely on the good will of the Legislature and the governor to see that they receive fair pay as the cost of living increases for all Alaskans. Yet we have not adjusted the pay for these essential public employees since 2015, while inflation has increased steadily. The unorganized workers have fallen behind classified workers by at least two sets of bargaining agreements in the past seven years.

Each week, criminal justice professionals work as many hours for free as they work on the clock. Indeed, they care about the quality of their work and have an ethical duty to provide zealous representation for their clients. They also care about their reputations for demonstrating competence and keeping up with absurdly high caseloads.

The pay increases in House Bill 226 will still leave state public employees’ attorney salaries marginally less than the starting salary in Montana of $81,000. While some suggest a 20% pay hike is too generous for public attorneys, consider this: the National District Attorneys Association recommends a starting salary of $87,564. Even HB 226 falls short of that recommendation by about $15,000. However, we are confident that this increase in pay will go a long way toward stemming the recruitment and retention crisis in the prosecutor’s office. Further, HB 226 sets future pay increases for attorneys at the rate of any increase in the supervisory bargaining unit of state government. Henceforth, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals, as well as other civil attorneys’ agencies, should not be left behind.

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To further show our commitment to improving public safety, we led the passage of House Bill 416. House Bill 416 allows a bonus of up to $10,000 for attorneys, and it has a sliding scale for paralegals and other staff, so long as employees remain in state employ through July 1, 2023.

In a similar vein, the Alaska Court System has a large work force of unorganized workers — about 800 people — who are chronically underpaid. That more than one-half of court staff with families of four are eligible for food stamps confirms the critical need to support the third branch of government.

Naturally, our civil and criminal attorneys, whether they represent the state in court or provide constitutional balance by representing defendants, have a kinship with court staff. Culturally they are cut from a similar broadcloth, along with the fact that they lack a natural advocate in Juneau when it comes to maintaining quality of life during a period where inflation erodes purchasing power. Consequently, court staff also see a pay increase under HB 226.

Finally, in a bipartisan effort, we were happy to treat an amendment by Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, in the House Finance Committee as a friendly amendment, and it survived through to the governor’s desk. His amendment gives a pay boost of 5% to all other exempt and partially exempt employees other than attorneys and court staff. As before, these individuals had not seen a cost-of-living-allowance increase since 2015.

With these essential measures to invest in our public safety, we fervently hope to see real improvement in our criminal justice system. When we learned from the deputy attorney general, for instance, that in the Civil Division alone, 93 out of 143 positions were vacated since just 2018, it was evident we had an unsustainable problem. Data from the Criminal Division was even more dire spanning the same time period.

The state needs skilled attorneys to prosecute crimes, provide child protection, and advance and defend the state on a multitude of matters. We believe HB 226 and HB 416 will go a long way toward recruiting and retaining talent in our attorney workforce, court staff, and other public employees’ sectors.

Andy Josephson has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1998 and a state legislator since 2013. Matt Claman has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1988 and a legislator since 2015.

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Andy Josephson

Andy Josephson was elected to the Alaska State House of Representatives in 2012 and represents residents in Midtown, the university area, and East Anchorage.

Matt Claman

Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2014. He has served on the Anchorage Assembly and also as acting mayor of Anchorage.

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