Budget cuts hit prosecutors hard

To see how state budget cuts are affecting Alaska’s legal system, head to Juneau’s courthouse and search the court calendar for misdemeanor drug crimes.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find one.

The Alaska Department of Law has all but stopped prosecuting misdemeanor drug offenses in Juneau that aren’t linked to a more serious crime. The City and Borough of Juneau, which has taken over prosecution of most misdemeanors in the city, doesn’t take drug cases.

“That is a category of offenses that falls into sort of a no-man’s land,” District Attorney Angie Kemp told the Empire.

It’s perhaps the most glaring example of a problem facing Juneau, and Alaska as a whole. Facing a $2.7 billion annual budget deficit, lawmakers have acted to cut costs. Some of those cuts have fallen on Alaska’s public safety departments even as those same departments try to cope with a crime wave linked to Alaska’s ongoing epidemic of drug addiction.

In Juneau, the number of “Part 1 crimes” — a category that includes murder, rape, robbery, burglary and theft — rose from 1,081 in 2014 to 1,879 in 2016, according to statistics provided by the Juneau Police Department to the city’s public safety task force. This year, according to projections based on the first six months of the year, there will be 2,038 such crimes.

“If you’ve got a homicide case in one hand and a misdemeanor drug case comes in … I need to make a judgment call,” Kemp said.

If you’ve ever watched “Law and Order,” you know the role district attorneys play in the criminal justice system. Police arrest suspects, but it’s the job of the district attorney (and fellow prosecutors) to prove in front of a judge that a suspect is guilty.

Before becoming the capital city’s district attorney in June, Kemp was born and raised here. She worked in the DA’s office as an assistant in 2004, as an intern in 2007, and as an assistant district attorney starting in 2008.

She said it’s easy to see the difference between then and now.

On one of Kemp’s bookshelves is a copy of Truman Capote’s 1966 novel “In Cold Blood.” Atop another is a wooden sign with an appropriate inscription: “Due to recent cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.”

Public safety budgets peaked in the second half of 2013, according to figures from the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Division. According to figures presented to the Legislature in October, the judiciary and the departments of Law, Public Safety and Corrections had a combined budget of just under $700 million.

When Kemp became an assistant district attorney, there were four prosecutors on the third floor of Juneau’s Dimond Courthouse. Today, there are three. There’s also fewer office staff to handle the daily paperwork, which means prosecutors have less time to devote to cases.

“We’re now more in triage mode,” Kemp said.

There’s a snowball effect to state cuts, she explained. Last year, Alaska’s Chief Justice (in charge of budgets for the judiciary) closed courthouses on Friday afternoons as a cost-cutting measure.

As a result, prosecutors have much less time to organize grand jury proceedings to obtain indictments. There are fewer time slots for trials.

“I don’t know that there’s one right answer, but I think what I can say is that we were just cut too deeply,” Kemp said.

Walk down Seward Street from the courthouse, stop into city hall, and you’ll find a different scene.

City attorney Amy Mead remembers the day three years ago when the then-District Attorney James Scott asked for a meeting with her, the city manager and police chief to discuss state budget cuts.

“One of the things he asked was that the city take on more of the misdemeanor prosecutions,” Mead said. “That was the first wave we saw.”

After more budget cuts, the city was asked to take on even more misdemeanor prosecutions. Today, it handles almost all of them. (It doesn’t do drug prosecutions because of the expense and because drug crimes aren’t in CBJ code, Mead said.)

While the Legislature has been reluctant to spend more money on public safety, the Juneau Assembly has not. When Mead asked for a new prosecutor to help with the load and help collect fines, the Assembly stepped up.

“We have never declined cases because of budget concerns,” Mead said, and she’s proud of the work city prosecutors are doing.

Mead cautioned that there’s a limit to the city’s ability to take up the slack, however.

When the Legislature reformed the state’s criminal justice system last year in Senate Bill 91 and again this year with Senate Bill 54, it called for alternatives to prison, such as drug treatment and halfway homes. It has yet to significantly fund those alternatives.

“If the public safety dollars are not there, then I don’t know what we do,” Mead said. “I think the state is telling communities, it’s your problem now.”

If that’s the case, Juneau’s better off than most places in Alaska. Only Anchorage (and to some extent Fairbanks) have full-time municipal prosecutors. Alaska’s other communities have to rely on state prosecutors like Kemp.

When the Alaska Legislature convenes in January, it will be tasked with some of the most difficult legislative decisions since the oil-driven recession of the 1980s.

Alaska’s state budget deficit is $2.7 billion. Its principal savings account, the Constitutional Budget Reserve, will contain only about $2.1 billion by July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

The House’s coalition majority and the Senate’s Democratic minority have said taxes are needed to pay for state services. The Alaska Senate’s Republican-led majority and the House’s Republican Minority have repeatedly said they’re reluctant (or entirely opposed) to new taxes.

Their principal argument is that state government needs to be “right-sized” before new taxes come into play.

On the fourth floor of the Dimond Courthouse, in the office directly above Kemp’s, is Alaska District Attorney Jahna Lindemuth.

In her mind, there’s no doubt what “right-sized” is for the Department of Law.

“I would like to get back to 2014 numbers,” she said.

When Gov. Bill Walker releases his budget request in December, she’ll be asking for five more prosecutors. If that’s approved, she’ll ask for five more in the year after that.

“I think we’ve gone too far in making cuts to public safety,” she said.

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.

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