JUNEAU — An Anchorage lawmaker says the cash-strapped state could better serve crime victims by reducing the budget for Alaska's Office of Victims Rights and using the savings to pay for more criminal prosecutors.
State lawmakers have heard stark testimony this month from Gov. Bill Walker's administration about how budget cuts have sliced more than 20 prosecutors from the Alaska Department of Law over the past three years — with a corresponding one-third drop in the number of misdemeanor prosecutions.
Meanwhile, spending by the Office of Victims Rights, a 15-year-old agency created and funded by the Legislature that employs four attorneys, has held steady at $900,000 over the same period. The office is a legislative branch agency, a rare structure in Alaska.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Matt Claman says the public would be better served by spending half the victims rights office budget on three more prosecutors.
"I like them both. But I believe we're sent here to make tough choices," Claman, a former public defender, said in an interview Wednesday. "I think we do more to protect the public with more prosecutors."
Claman, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced his idea at a Wednesday morning meeting of the Legislative Council, the bipartisan House-Senate committee charged with managing lawmakers' internal business.
With legislative leaders calling for cuts to Walker's executive branch agencies, they're also facing pressure to reduce their own budget. And though the preliminary legislative budget approved Wednesday by the council is just half a percent smaller than last year's, members are asking the House and Senate finance committees — the budget's next stops — to cut at least 3.5 percent.
Claman's proposal would allow the Legislature to claim credit for reducing its own budget while finding cash to pay for a core government service that lawmakers from both parties believe has been cut too deeply.
The state Law Department is already legally required to notify crime victims of defendants' arraignments or initial court appearances, Claman said. And he pointed out nonprofit groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Victims for Justice also advocate on behalf of victims.
Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, a former Kenai police chief, said the Office of Victims Rights performs a "duplicative function." Kopp said Claman's proposal was a "brilliant" idea.
"Prosecutors have the duty, already, to look after victims," Kopp said. "We see positions being moved around right now for better service at lower price — we're all doing it, and OVR and the Legislature should not be exempt."
But Claman's idea also appears politically charged and likely to generate fierce opposition, especially with lawmakers hearing a barrage of complaints about last year's criminal justice overhaul, Senate Bill 91.
The legislation aimed to save money by limiting expensive prison sentences, shifting lower-level convicts to cheaper alternatives. Proponents of that legislation are fending off criticism it's too soft on crime, and in interviews Wednesday, a pair of Republican lawmakers sounded skeptical about targeting victims' advocates for budget reductions.
"I think we need more prosecutors, but we also need the Office of Victims Rights," said Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, who sponsored SB 91. "What I'd have to look at is: Does one produce better than the other? I don't know the answer."
Rep. Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, who voted against SB 91, called Claman's idea "terrible."
"You can put me down as an incredibly loud objection to that," he said.
The victims rights office's proposed 2018 budget includes six-figure pay for four attorneys, with an investigator, a legal secretary, and an administrative assistant earning lower salaries.
The office, created in 2001, opened 259 new cases in the 2016 fiscal budget that ended June 30. Its work entails advocating for victims rights from the moment a crime is reported to police, to the end of a convict's sentence or probation, said Taylor Winston, the former prosecutor who heads the office.
Winston said she and her staff follow up on police reports, push prosecutors to pursue cases, file motions in court and attend hearings on victims' behalf. They rely on victims to come to them, rather than seeking them out after crimes are committed, she said.
"We don't do ambulance-chasing," Winston said in a phone interview. "Victims come to us much like any client would go to an attorney."
Winston hadn't heard about Claman's proposal until Wednesday morning, when she learned its details from a reporter.
Claman said he doesn't intend to denigrate the work of the office. But, he argued, using half of its budget to pay for prosecutors could make a "significant impact."
The Law Department's criminal division has 106 attorneys this year, down from 128 in 2014, and has seen an even steeper reduction in its support staff, division director, John Skidmore, told a House budget subcommittee this week.
The division is still pursuing close to the same number of felony cases as in 2013 — numbers are down 3 percent — but its misdemeanor prosecutions have plummeted to some 13,000, said Cori Mills, a department spokesperson.
In the past, the department might have passed on certain misdemeanor prosecutions if, for example, the supporting evidence was shaky, Mills said. Now, prosecutors are being forced to decline stronger misdemeanor cases, she said.
"We're actually having to decide: Do we prosecute the sexual assault that just came in, or do we prosecute the theft case of a retail store in town?" Mills said. "There are some cases that are perfectly good cases where we're just having to say, 'We don't have the resources.'"