Pandemic’s impacts on Alaska’s criminal justice system add to case backlog
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In March 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic turned life as people knew it upside down, at least temporarily. In the Alaska Court System, an already growing backlog of cases was exacerbated by delayed proceedings, suspended trials, and difficulty for attorneys to access their clients.
A look at the past four years of the Alaska Court System’s data shows that between Jan. 1, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2021, more than 5,000 additional criminal cases were still pending. But the pandemic isn’t the whole story. Pending cases had been on the rise since at least 2018.
On Jan. 1, 2018, there were 9,638 cases awaiting resolution. By 2019, there were 12,845 cases pending. On the first day of January 2021, that number jumped to 19,788, and there was a slight decrease by 2022, with 19,629 cases still awaiting resolution.
“What we saw in those years is there was progression of more and more cases that were ‘pending,’ or waiting to go to jury trial or a resolution,” said John Skidmore, assistant attorney general of the Criminal Division of the Alaska Department of Law. “That increase was occurring prior to the pandemic, but it continued throughout the pandemic and has grown larger than it really should be at the moment.”
In March 2020, jury trials came to a halt. Judge Catherine Easter, who oversees the Anchorage-based criminal judges, says she and others in the court system were out of state during spring break when COVID-19 hit Alaska, and something had to be changed, quick. She returned from her trip, quarantined for 14 days as was recommended at the time, and then got back to work.
“When I first came back, we were still bringing folks over from the jail 20 to 40 at a time. I put a stop to that, that obviously wasn’t safe due to where we were at that particular time,” Easter said in a February interview.
Criminal proceedings moved largely to a telephonic platform, a massive technological hurdle and learning curve for the court system and Alaska Department of Corrections. Even a year later, it’s still not perfect, Easter said.
“We’re still doing our big block hearings telephonically, and it’s challenging,” she said. “There’s times when you’re waiting for inmates to be brought to the phone.”
During a recent arraignment hearing Alaska’s News Source called in to, half a dozen or more inmates were involved, handing the phone off to one another or calling for the next defendant themselves in the background.
In addition to going telephonic for many hearings, the Alaska Court System suspended jury trials for months. From March 16, 2020 to Nov. 2, 2020, all jury trials were suspended. Misdemeanor trials were allowed to resume, but certain jurisdictions put restrictions in place based on their local pandemic risk levels. While attorneys were allowed to petition a judge for a jury trial, few did.
Just 58 criminal jury trials were held in 2020, and 92 in 2021, according to state records. That number plummeted from earlier years, when the courts heard 266 cases statewide in 2018, and 319 in 2019.
The delay of criminal proceedings can wear on crime victims, said Victoria Shanklin, executive director of Victims for Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for the victims of violent crime.
“We are operating in a system in which there were already a number of court delays. Prior to COVID we already had a backlog, so this hasn’t helped at all,” Shanklin told Alaska’s News Source.
“It doesn’t allow people to like, move forward or feel like something has been closed or feel like there’s been any type of justice involved.”
The pushing back of a trial date, and extension of hearings can keep victims from moving on.
“It’s continuously put off, hearing after hearing after hearing, which is re-triggering for victims. It doesn’t allow people to like, move forward or feel like something has been closed or feel like there’s been any type of justice involved,” Shanklin said. “It’s just one more continuation and every time you get that alert, you’re re-traumatized or triggered again.”
Skidmore, a prosecutor, says his office has heard from victims who have expressed their frustration with a case not moving forward.
“That’s completely righteous,” he told Alaska’s News Source. “They are upset that something horrible has happened to them, and they can’t get resolution on whatever that may be.”
For Skidmore, getting trials back up and moving — which began again June 1, 2021 — is the biggest piece of the puzzle to get justice moving again. However, jury trials alone aren’t going to resolve cases quickly.
“Even though the vast majority, 95% of the cases will resolve through plea negotiations, it’s difficult to get cases resolved with a plea without the imminent possibility of a trial,” Skidmore said.
Of the cases resolved in each year from 2018 to 2021, Alaska’s News Source found that between 42% and 53% of criminal trials were resolved by a plea deal. They went down during the pandemic also. The year 2020 saw the biggest drop in all types of case resolutions, with a slight uptick again in 2021.
Alaska did see fewer criminal cases filed in 2020 and 2021. There were nearly 31,000 criminal cases filed in 2018, and 33,000 filed in 2019. In 2020, that number dropped to 28,900, and just 26,000 in 2021.
Easter agrees with Skidmore, saying that trials alone won’t erase the build-up of cases, but that other factors than trials and plea deals are at play as well.
Staff turnover in the court system, prosecutors’ office and among defense attorneys is also problematic.
“If someone leaves, you can’t expect a new attorney to go to trial in a couple months on an unclassified or (class) A felony,” Easter said.
Skidmore agreed, saying both prosecutors and defense attorneys are seeing turnover, and the suspension of trials has made it difficult for new attorneys to get experience.
“We both have sets of employees that have come in, new attorneys, who have never been to trial,” Skidmore told Alaska’s News Source. “Two years, they haven’t been to trial. That’s a long time.”
Skidmore said it generally takes about two years for a prosecutor to get up to speed, and a two-year delay in cases, has pushed that back.
“If they haven’t had trial for two years, they’re not anywhere close to really realizing their potential,” he said. “I think that goes for the defense as well.”
“It’s going to be exhausting for everyone involved.”
Skidmore says he’s focusing on recruiting and retaining prosecutors, and being more judicious in selecting which cases to prosecute, moving forward on cases with rock-solid evidence and that will be deserving of the resources it takes to manage them.
“We’ve probably tightened the tap a little bit on the number of cases that come into the system,” he said.
Easter says she and her staff are reviewing long-outstanding cases and contacting prosecutors and defense attorneys to get them moving again.
“It’s going to be exhausting for everyone involved,” she said. It’s going to be exhausting for attorneys, it’s going to be exhausting for judges, it’s going to be exhausting for staff.”
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