It’s hard to think of a right more fundamental to American democracy than equal protection under the law. Our system of justice is underpinned by the radical, egalitarian notion that all people are entitled not only to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proved but also to representation by an attorney, even if they can’t afford one. Although it’s impossible to provide a completely equal justice system — money can still buy better (and more) attorneys to represent you — these core precepts have gone a long way toward leveling the playing field and providing due process for those accused of crimes.
But in western Alaska, that promise of equal justice is falling short. And we need to fix that as soon as possible.
Last week, the Public Defender Agency asked judges in the Nome and Bethel Superior Courts to not assign its attorneys cases from the most serious felony offenders after Feb. 13, citing a shortage of qualified attorneys within the public defender ranks. Alaskans who are less familiar with the court system might wonder how the agency can refuse cases; the answer, in short, is that public defenders are already shorthanded and overburdened by a massive backlog of cases that piled up during the COVID-19 pandemic. To continue to accept serious felony cases, the public defenders warn, would run the risk of not being able to give defendants the representation they’re guaranteed under the Constitution. And that would mean the outcome of trials in those cases could be successfully challenged on grounds of a due process failure — an expensive and unproductive outcome, not to mention an unjust one, for all concerned.
[Alaska public defenders will begin refusing cases in Nome and Bethel, citing staff shortage]
Not having enough qualified public defenders to handle serious cases is a black eye for our state, and particularly so because it’s happening in a region where public safety failures are already manifest. The brutal fact is that keeping Alaska’s people safe and applying justice faithfully is the first job of government. Three of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution concern the rights of the accused, underscoring their monumental importance to our society’s sense of fairness. If we’re failing at that, it doesn’t matter much what else we’re getting right.
The Legislature deserves credit for recognizing this problem last year and moving to address it — the state approved a 20% pay increase in 2022 for state prosecutors and public defenders alike. But problems that developed over a long period are rarely solved quickly, and it’s clear more must be done to address the imminent need for defense attorneys in western Alaska.
Fortunately, this is a rare problem that can be fixed with money, and it should be. This should be the first priority for legislators — before even such high priorities as education, transportation and the Permanent Fund dividend. Americans grant their government a monopoly on the use of force in order to protect individual rights. In exchange, we should expect a robust, fair and equitable justice system for all people. We can’t afford to have the promises of equal protection and due process be merely lip service. We already have a two-tiered justice system in Alaska when it comes to law enforcement; it would be double to our shame if our state allowed one to exist in the trial courts as well.