Like so many of her neighbors over the years, Nikiski resident Heidi Hatch has been a victim of theft.
In 2004, Hatch attended a court hearing for the man arrested in the burglary of her home and watched helplessly as the district attorney cut the man a deal. To add insult to injury, the defendant pointed his finger at Hatch like he was shooting at her, she said.
“The man who robbed me called me from Wildwood and threatened my family,” she said. “Criminals bully victims. That’s how they get their way.”
Hatch attended a town hall meeting Saturday on the topic of the recent rise of drug-related burglaries and shared a common concern of many in her area: how can law enforcement support citizens from possible retaliation from convicted felons?
Community members that have cried for justice as a result of a spree of drug-related thefts in the last few months had the ear of Gov. Sean Parnell and candidate for Lt. Gov. Dan Sullivan at a town hall meeting at the Kenai Visitor and Cultural Center in Kenai Saturday. Kenai District Attorney Scot Leaders and the Director of the Alaska State Troopers Col. James Cockrell attended the meeting, organized by local state legislators, to answer questions and listen to the public to help search for answers.
“You have the attention of the highest echelons of public safety,” Parnell said.
Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, organized the meeting as a way to collect a list of action items from to the community that lawmakers and law enforcement can use to better address the problem.
“Nobody wants to turn people that have a drug problem into criminals until they cross that line and that line has been crossed when they invade our homes and make us feel at risk,” Micciche said. “We want everybody to turn their lives around and that is just not a reality in every case.”
Despite progress made by law enforcement in recent weeks in an effort to lock up drug users and thieves, citizens asked Leaders how the repeat offenders could be kept in prison longer.
Leaders has been the Kenai DA for three years and a prosecutor for 16 years. He said the primary goal of the prosecutor’s office is rehabilitation and try to help change a person’s life.
“We are dedicated to do what we can to curb issues and find accountability to those committing offenses and give people a sense of protection and security,” Leaders said.
Nikiski resident Dave Carpenter said the high number of repeat offenders implies that rehabilitation isn’t working.
“There’s not enough teeth in the law to encourage someone to change their ways,” he said. “My father encouraged me to be a good boy and it hurt. … We have legislators in this room they make the laws. The governor signs the law and the judges are supposed to abide by the laws. … But if the law, prosecutions and entire attitude of rehabilitation of repeat offenders is not working, something needs to be changed.”
Leaders said his office sees about 3,000 cases a year. With nine attorneys and the average of trials going four to five days, he said the sheer volume shows the reality of their limitations. Every case cannot go to trial and must be prioritized.
“(Plea) negotiations have to be made,” Leaders said.
Hatch took issues with that statement.
“I mean no disrespect but, at whose expense?” she said.
Leaders said the district attorney’s office has to allocate its resources to domestic violence crimes and sexual assault cases. His office does have attorneys dedicated to drug charges and one that focuses on property crimes and have been working in connection with law enforcement. He encouraged individuals to talk with the office of victim’s rights if they feel threatened after turning somebody in for a crime.
“We represent the State of Alaska and not all citizens get the results they want,” Leaders said. “We are doing the best we can.”
When asked about multiple felony offenders that have suspended sentences but can still get out of jail on bail, Leaders said when a person is placed on probation with a suspended sentence he or she still has constitutional rights.
He said another resource that could help, one that the Kenai Judicial District doesn’t have, is therapeutic courts. Those convicted in substance abuse cases could go to treatment programs in lieu of prison.
Nikiski resident Ann Krogseng, organizer of the Nikiski Community Action Group, said they have started a court watcher group, where citizens research court cases of known theft suspects and plan to attend court hearings to let the courts know of the personal impacts of the crimes.
“We are asking people to go to the courthouse sit behind the DA be visible and let people know they can’t stay in the shadows anymore,” she said. “We see their face and now they know ours.”
Leaders said continued involvement from the community is important whether it’s by being able to identify a suspect as a witness or being present at hearings. The more citizens that show up in the courts could influence a judge’s decision in sentencing, he said.
Hatch said while she isn’t scared of standing up to the criminals, she fears for other people in the community who could become targets for retaliation. The man arrested in the burglary of her home had 48 prior felony convictions and now resides in Sterling, she said.
“Where I live there are 10 drug dealers within a mile radius of my house,” she said. “I know that and I don’t use drugs. If I know that, you know that.”
Soldotna resident Eric Treider, who is running as an independent candidate for Senate District O, said he was disappointed Gov. Parnell decided against expanding Medicaid because that funding could go to drug treatment programs.
Micciche said he felt first time drug offenders don’t belong in prison and would like to see first time penalties eliminated so people can get the treatment they need. State legislators will have to take a look at the budget to evaluate if the funding is adequate, he said.
“We hold the purse strings,” he said. “Instead of rewarding communities for what they think they might want, we need to ensure we fund things they need. (Public safety) is one of those needs.”
Trooper Captain Andy Greenstreet, Soldotna E-Detachment Commander, said troopers have received a lot of help from the community in the number of tips and as a result the crime suppression unit has made some arrests. He said he is willing to look at trooper distribution but his challenge is that his detachment is spread so thin, he does not know where he could reallocate resources to better service the outlying areas.
“If we could allocate more trooper positions on the Peninsula I’m confident we could find them work to do,” Greenstreet said. “I like to be proactive. I don’t like being so reactionary to everything and wish we had time to work on investigations and bring them to reasonable conclusions.”
He said burglary investigations are time-consuming because troopers need to piece a lot of information together and find the culprit.
Nikiski resident Ben Carpenter moved back to the area last summer after serving in the military. He questioned how troopers could be aggressively recruiting for new troopers yet statewide have 16 vacancies. Carpenter said there is a problem in the trooper’s organization that limits how many qualified candidates are hired.
Cockrell said hiring guidelines are stringent because they want to hire the best people for the job and wouldn’t lower standards.
“We are doing everything right,” Cockrell said. “We would like more candidates but you guys deserve the best.”
Ben Carpenter said the biggest problem he has seen is trooper response time to calls in Nikiski. He said he can provide a tip but by the time they get a response it’s stale and does no good. He said lately it appears the troopers have listened to the community and has seen an uptick in responses. Recently five people were arrested across the street from his house, he said.
“Why does it take community meetings like this to foster change?” he said. “That’s the frustrating part. As the community gets involved troopers look to the people to identify who the bad guys are. Whatever we’re doing is not solving the problem. The solution is larger than just additional troopers.”
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com.