Alaska Court System has backlog of cases as jury trials resume

Updated: Jun. 9, 2021 at 4:54 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Court System has a backlog of cases to work through after jury trials were halted during the pandemic.

Misdemeanor trials resumed in April and as of June 1, class B and C felony trials can resume. However, the most complex cases involving class A and unclassified felonies will generally resume on July 6, but could take longer to get moving again.

“It is very concerning that we had to delay jury trials for this long, but it was only because of the absolute necessity of a global pandemic that we did so,” said Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger.

He said the nature of a jury trial, a proceeding in which several people are compelled to be present, made it unsafe to continue during the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, on May 1, 2019, there were 3,322 superior court felony cases pending statewide, according to data provided by the Alaska Court System. On the same date this year, there were 4,317 pending superior court felony cases, an increase of nearly 30%.

Bolger said the pending case data is reflective of the backlog the court system is facing.

“I think that’s the best estimate of the backlog and that’s what I rely on when I tell you I think it’s something that can be easily resolved,” he said.

Addressing the backlog will take months, Bolger estimates.

During an Anchorage Assembly public safety committee meeting last week, Deputy Municipal Attorney Sarah Stanley reported there were difficulties in getting cases ready to present to a jury.

“The court did open up jury trials last week,” Stanley said. “We had two judges available to do jury trials, but between missing witnesses and missing defendants, we were not able to find two cases that both the prosecution and the defense were ready to try at the same time.”

Bolger said Wednesday that other areas have not had the same level of difficulty when it comes to resuming jury trials.

“That’s what we’ve heard from the district court here in Anchorage, but we have had jury trials going in other locations across the state,” Bolger said. “For example in Bethel and also in Juneau, and in those cases, the experience has been that they do a few trials and most of the other cases settle by plea bargain or dismissal.”

He estimated that for every case that goes to trial, another dozen will settle.

Anchorage District Attorney Brittany Dunlop said around 90% of cases her office prosecutes are resolved by plea deals, but those have stalled.

“Without the possibility of trial, there’s not an incentive for people to plea,” Dunlop said. “The trial backlog is a real thing, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

Dunlop estimated it will take a year for her office to get caught up with the backlog, but acknowledged cases already moved slowly before the pandemic.

“Already trials were behind what I’m comfortable with,” she said. “It takes a long time to get a felony case to trial in Anchorage.”

A more concerning backlog for Dunlop is grand jury indictments.

“We have somewhere between 1,600 and 1,700 cases that are charged felonies that are pre-indictment,” she said.

Litigation is ongoing over how the delays have impacted defendants’ rights to speedy trials.

“It feels super unfair to victims or witnesses and probably defendants as well to have cases sit without being heard,” Dunlop said. “And so I’m hopeful that things will start moving.”

With the exception of an unclassified felony case that’s on trial in Anchorage now, Dunlop said the plan is to move forward primarily with class B and C felony cases — which typically involve fewer witnesses and experts — and save more complex, several-week trials for later in the summer or the fall.

Bolger said restrictions still in place regarding access to courts, distancing and other health safety measures are being reevaluated on a weekly basis.

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