Alaska Court System faces significant trial backlog as courtrooms reopen from COVID-19 closures
By James Brooks
As the Alaska Court system resumes jury trials after a pandemic-enforced suspension, it is facing a major backlog and asking for supplemental funding to meet the demand.
Almost 20,000 criminal cases are awaiting trial, a figure that has risen by 27% since the start of 2020. Some Alaskans have been forced to remain in prison awaiting trial, and some have been temporarily released from prison to prevent overcrowding. The Alaska Department of Law also changed its prosecution decisions, screening out some minor cases in order to focus on serious crimes.
The Alaska Court system is asking the state Legislature for $1.8 million to deal with the problem. Chief Alaska Supreme Court Justice Daniel Winfree delivered the court system’s annual address to lawmakers on Tuesday, and in his script, he thanked Gov. Mike Dunleavy for requesting the money on behalf of the courts, and he thanked legislators for considering the request.
As of Jan. 1, there were 19,629 pending felony and misdemeanor cases awaiting trial in Alaska courts. That’s up by more than 5,000 from the same date in 2020, and the rise came even as the number of criminal cases declined steeply.
“My observation from the trial calls that are happening in state cases and municipal cases is that the backlog is atrocious,” said John Cashion, an experienced defense attorney in Anchorage. “There’s far more people waiting for their day in court than the court system is able to accommodate.”
During the pandemic, the court system suspended most jury trials. It attempted to resume them in October 2020, but rising case counts caused officials to abandon that plan. Another attempt in summer 2021 was scuttled by the delta variant. Trials resumed in January and remain underway.
The vast majority of criminal cases are settled through plea deals or when prosecutors drop charges, but with no firm trial dates, there were fewer plea deals, Winfree said.
“For every 100 misdemeanor cases, one generally goes to trial. On the felony side, for every 100 felony cases, you’re going to get two or three trials. So 97% of cases do not go to jury trial,” Winfree said. Statistics can create a false impression about the size of the backlog, he said.
The court system’s request for additional funding would allow it to rent additional temporary courtroom space and buy equipment that could be used to set up socially distanced courtroom spaces. The state’s existing courtrooms are too small to allow for proper social distancing, he said.
Though trials have already resumed, prosecutors and defense attorneys are still getting used to the resumption, and the backlog may linger for some time, said Winfree and others.
John Skidmore, head of the criminal division at the Alaska Department of Law, said normal turnover means experienced attorneys have been replaced by new ones, and many of those new attorneys may never have tried a case before. He offered an analogy:
“Think of it like a football player. You put them out on the field, and you can scrimmage them as much as you want. But it’s different when you actually do a real game on Sundays. And the more experience they have in those games, you hope, the more they develop, and the better they get. It’s no different in this circumstance,” he said.
The consequences for Alaskans accused of crimes are even more significant. During the pandemic, the court system suspended its rules requiring a speedy trial. Winfree said in an interview Tuesday that decision was “painful.”
“It’s painful in that conversation to say, right now with these (COVID-19) numbers, we have to protect people coming into our courthouses, and so let’s limit what (trials) we have,” he said.
At the start of the pandemic, the state had about 4,700 people in prison, according to statistics kept by the Alaska Justice Information Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage. That dropped to about 4,000 by May 2020, but by the end of November 2021 — the most recent data — the figure had climbed back to about 4,500.
Approximately 55% of the state’s prisoners have not been convicted; they’re awaiting trial. That proportion is significantly higher than it was before the pandemic, according to the information center data.
“People have been sitting in pretrial (detention), and some people have been let out,” Winfree said.
Skidmore said he’s seen people brought into court after repeatedly violating their conditions of release, only to be released again.
The number of people under the supervision of the state prison system’s pretrial division rose 20% between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021, according to figures presented to the Alaska Legislature this month. Most of the 4,700 people under supervision were outside of prison.
Skidmore said the Department of Law changed its strategy to address the backlog. It declined to prosecute some less-serious offenses in favor of serious ones.
“We at the Department of Law did everything we could to make sure that we were screening cases as tightly and as strictly as possible, because we knew this backlog was building,” he said.
The drop in filed felony cases was less significant than the drop in misdemeanor cases, though statewide crime rates also fell during the period, making it difficult to determine how much of the drop was due to less crime and how much was due to prosecutorial decisions.
“There were probably cases that we have declined during this timeframe, to really try and focus our resources on what we thought mattered most. Whether or not we’ve been successful at that change, time will only tell,” he said.