Already shorthanded, public defender agency could suffer following new vetoes

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - With nearly $450 million in cuts included in Governor Mike Dunleavy's recent vetoes, many departments are still trying to grapple with how to fulfill their missions with fewer resources.

Such is the case for several groups within the Department of Administration, including the state's Public Defender Agency, which caters to the needs of those charged with criminal acts who are unable to afford legal representation: The agency is in place "to provide constitutionally mandated legal representation to indigent clients appointed by the court."

As for the thousands of people each year who need representation in a criminal matter, they'll be hard-pressed to find a defense attorney charging a fee less than hundreds of dollars an hour.

"The average person cannot afford to go to court," said Patrick Anderson, who served as an attorney in Alaska before heading up the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. "There's been a lot of self-help lately, occasional clinics where people are directed to file their own casework."

This is where the Public Defender Agency, tasked with defending those who would normally be unable to afford it, comes in. The court determines whether someone qualifies for public defender representation, usually by inquiring about a defendant's financial status and then asking if said defendant needs a court-appointed attorney. If the defendant confirms their need for state defense, they will fill out forms and go through the process of officially being appointed a lawyer.

The Public Defender Agency in Alaska, like those in the Lower 48, is legally bound to provide services to any client who has been appointed council.

However, while the group could not comment on recent budget vetoes, Dunleavy has already vetoed about $400,000 from the agency, plus eliminated another $180,000 - or 50 percent - from its statewide travel budget, leaving the group that defends less financially stable Alaskans in criminal cases down more than half a million dollars.

"Public defenders are extraordinary," Anderson said, "but they are incredibly overworked."

For all of those across Alaska who need a state-appointed attorney, there are currently just 104 public defenders in 13 offices across the state. They are each tasked with hundreds of cases each year, even when the office is fully staffed.

The American Bar Association standard for criminal attorneys is about 150 felony cases per year on their dockets, but when positions aren't filled or staffing budgets are cut, the dockets can get larger. A report released by the Department of Administration in 2017 showed an average of 248 cases per public defender in 2016 with a projection of 281 cases per public defender in the years following. A request to the Departments of Administration and Law for data on the caseloads in the years since then was unsuccessful, with officials from both groups noting they did not have numbers to give.

In a change record document disseminated by the Office of Management and Budget, a notation near recorded cuts to the Public Defender Agency said that "this reduction reverses the Legislature's increment to the Public Defender Agency. Additional resources needed to address increased crime are included in the fiscal notes associated with HB 49. The State's fiscal reality dictates a reduction in expenditures across all agencies."

The same document also noted "agencies will rely on technology and management efficiencies to reduce the amount of state employee travel."

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