Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, left, and Alaska Public Defender Samantha Cherot discuss a report Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska, that says the public defender agency is passing off more cases to the Office of Public Advocacy due to conflicts of interest with other cases or clients. The report from a state oversight unit says the number of conflicts jeopardizes the primary defense role the agency plays. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, left, and Alaska Public Defender Samantha Cherot discuss a report Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, in Anchorage, Alaska, that says the public defender agency is passing off more cases to the Office of Public Advocacy due to conflicts of interest with other cases or clients. The report from a state oversight unit says the number of conflicts jeopardizes the primary defense role the agency plays. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Report highlights staffing issues at Public Defender Agency

Recruitment and retention are issues, along with limited support staff

Alaska’s commissioner of the Department of Administration acknowledged staffing and workload issues for the state’s Public Defender Agency and highlighted the administration’s commitment to fixing them in a teleconference Monday.

“We found the PDA has been budgeted sufficiently but it has significant recruiting and retention issues,” DOA Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said.

The data comes from a report by the Oversight and Review Unit, a brand new part of the DOA. The report, which was released Monday, was created with cooperation from the PDA to address issues and streamline efficiency. Some of those issues include the Office of Public Advocacy having to defend too many cases in which the PDA has a conflict of interest, lots of auxiliary work for PDA attorneys brought on by lack of support staff, staffing and retention, and particularly high caseloads in rural areas outside of Anchorage.

“Over the next several weeks we’ll be looking at the contents of the report,” said Samantha Cherot, the Alaska Public Defender, or head of the PDA.

[As Alaska public defenders offices are foundering, Juneau holds steady]

Cherot said that the PDA would be looking to those suggestions eagerly with a mind to adopting those that seem prudent.

“Every other state is offering more competitive salaries,” Tshibaka said, speaking of public defenders in the Lower 48. “We are going to lose them because we cannot offer them competitive salaries.”

Tshibaka said there are currently vacancies in Bethel, Kenai, Anchorage and Palmer.

She also noted methods that the PDA had been using to address the vacancies, including increased salaries, quick recruitment and assistance in relocation.

“I appreciate their creativity in filling those vacancies,” Tshibaka said.

Tshibaka addressed the contributions the Dunleavy administration has made to increasing the budget of the PDA by nearly $2 million in the last two fiscal years to support Dunleavy’s highly-touted prioritization of public safety, speaking out against allegations that the administration has been cutting funds to the PDA.

[Overall Alaska crime down, but violent crime is at 5 year high]

“Safety is the top priority of the Dunleavy administration,” Tshibaka said.

Tshibaka also pointed out other recommendations the ORU had made in their report, including hiring more support staff. More support staff would allow attorneys to focus more on their caseload and doing less of the peripheral work for each case such as investigations or research. Even now, Tshibaka said, the caseloads are within national standards of acceptability, though that’s a far cry from optimum, she added.

“That’s simply a constitutional threshold,” said Tshibaka of the estimated 145-154 cases per attorney for FY 2018-2019. “That does not mean we’re operating the best we can.”

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