With positions unfilled, Western Alaska prosecutors struggle to prioritize massive caseloads

A white boxy building
Kotzebue’s National Guard armory, which houses the local courthouse. (Jimmy Wayne/Creative Commons)

Prosecuting crimes in Western Alaska can be tough, with just a few lawyers assigned to thousands of annual cases. Local prosecutors often have to prioritize the most serious cases, dismissing lesser crimes that might be pursued in other parts of the state. 

Kotzebue’s district attorney position is currently vacant. The office is being temporarily overseen by Nome District Attorney John Earthman. Earthman said, in addition to numerous ongoing investigations, Nome sees about 1,000 new cases a year. Numbers in Kotzebue are similar. 

“That includes Kotzebue, the villages of the NANA region plus Point Hope. That’s a lot of cases for what is a two-attorney office,” Earthman said.

And that two-attorney Kotzebue office was vacant for about nine months, after Governor Dunleavy appointed both assistant district attorneys in the Kotzebue DA’s office to fill judicial seats in Valdez and Homer. From December 2019 to September 2020, Earthman said some cases were picked up by the Nome DA office, but most were handled out of Anchorage. 

Nome also lost an assistant district attorney last year, when Dunleavy appointed him to the Palmer District Court.

Earthman said getting qualified prosecutors to come out to rural Alaska is a chronic problem. 

“I think it’s a shame because living in Kotzebue or Nome or whatever … I think people are lucky to be able to do that,” Earthman said. “But it’s not for everyone. And it’s getting harder and harder to get people to even want to do these jobs out here.”

Kotzebue now has two prosecutors. Nome should be getting a new prosecutor this summer. Averaging more than one new case a day each, Earthman said prosecutors often have to focus on higher-level crimes. 

“They have very limited resources and their focus is going to be on the most serious offenses,” Earthman said. “Murders, sexual assaults, domestic violence and DUIs. That type of thing.”

Earthman said his office is working to help shoulder some cases by hiring a new prosecutor whose workload will be more focused.

“To handle sex cases, investigations and prosecuted cases, in both Nome and Kotzebue,” Earthman said.

Earthman is hopeful the new position will ease the workload in Nome and Kotzebue to work on other crimes in the area. He said he hopes in the long term, he can convince prosecutors to stick around longer. The longer a prosecutor works in rural Alaska, the better informed they’ll be on crimes facing this part of the state, he said.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

Previous articleWe asked all 60 Alaska legislators if they’re getting vaccinated. Here’s what they said.
Next articleLISTEN: Alaskans struggling with alcohol misuse could benefit from this medication, but it’s not widely used