Alaska Chief Justice wants to reduce pretrial time, enhance cyber-security, reduce caseload

Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger addresses the Alaska Legislature Feb. 20, 2019. (KTOO/Gavel Alaska)

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger says the state must ensure its technological security is up to the same standard of other state agencies after a breach in the Nome courthouse earlier this year.

“Recently, the computers in the Nome courthouse were unable to operate for several days. This is due to the same type of computer virus that infected the Mat-Su Borough last year,” Bolger told a joint session of the Legislature in the annual State of the Judiciary Address Wednesday morning.

Bolger said staff was able to contain the problem quickly and avoid statewide losses. But he emphasized that even though the security software was state-of-the-art when it was purchased, it needs to be updated to the standards of other agencies in the state.

The Mat-Su Borough was knocked down for weeks as it worked to contain the threat. The City of Valdez was hit by a similar virus, and took a gamble to pay the ransom.

Bolger gave an overview of the Judicial system in Alaska, including case loads and judicial vacancies, and talked about budgetary and legislative requests he had for the Legislature.

The Alaska Superior Court, which tackles felony cases and higher-end civil cases, handled 24,000 cases filed in the last fiscal year. The average caseload per Superior Court Judge was between 500-650 cases. About one-fourth of the cases each are felony cases and one-fourth are probate – cases involving estates. One-fifth of the cases are family cases, involving divorce or child custody, while one-tenth were Child in Need of Aid cases.

One request he had of the Legislature was to upgrade two District Court judgeships, located in Homer and Valdez, to Superior Court judge positions. Bolger says those two communities are one-judge courthouses, and they’re the only one-judge communities that are currently served by district judges, who adjudicate Misdemeanor and lower-level civil cases. Currently, if a felony or high-level case needs to be handled, a judge travels from another community.

The two judges in those communities are leaving – one to become a judge in another community, and the other to retire – and Bolger said he’d like to take advantage of the vacancies to ask the Legislature to upgrade the positions to Superior Court positions.

In response to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desire to open courts on Friday afternoon – the half-day closures were initially instituted as a cost-saving measure – Bolger said he had amended the Court System’s request for the funds needed to initiate that opening.

A major focus of Bolger’s, he said, is to shorten the amount of time cases spend in pretrial proceedings.

“It’s clear that a longer pretrial period benefits no one in the system,” Bolger said. “Not the victims who bear the continual stress of repeated continuances. Not the police officers whose cases wait years for adjudication. Not the criminal defendants who may be sitting in jail until their guilt or innocence is decided. And not the lawyers or judges, who need to juggle larger caseloads that are produced by this delay.”

A pilot program in Anchorage, he said, is working to streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary hearings in felony cases. That announcement received some applause from the gallery. Bolger said it will take time to change ingrained processes and habits, but that he’s encouraged that the court system is tackling that problem.

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