Gov. Dunleavy proposes funding boost for Alaska public defenders

am an speaks into a microphone
Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy during the Alaska Federation of Natives candidate forum in November. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday said he is proposing an additional $8.3 million over two years to help address caseload and staffing concerns for the state Public Defender Agency and Office of Public Advocacy.

Budget amendments outlined by Dunleavy in a news conference Wednesday also include funding for positions to help address a backlog in applications for food stamp benefits and to prepare for Medicaid eligibility determinations.

In December, Dunleavy released his budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year, and his administration has also made supplemental spending requests for the current year. Lawmakers use the governor’s budget proposal as a starting point as they craft a state spending plan. His proposed amendments include spending requests for the current year and for the fiscal year that will begin July 1.

Samantha Cherot, the state public defender, last month asked the judges overseeing the Nome and Bethel judicial districts to direct Superior Court judges there to not assign new cases to the agency for certain felonies that include the most serious and complex crimes. She said the agency has long struggled to recruit and retain qualified attorneys and that recent resignations had left the agency without enough experienced attorneys in those regions to handle new, complicated cases.

Her request took effect this past Monday. She said Wednesday she hopes the situation is short-lived.

The agency had not had a new appointment to such felony cases in Nome or Bethel as of Monday, but “they will surely come, and at that point, I anticipate we’ll need to brief the issue and it will be for the court to decide,” Cherot said.

RELATED: Alaska public defenders to refuse some Nome and Bethel cases due to shortage of attorneys

She said that with support from the governor and legislature, her agency can work on solutions to long-term staffing shortages. She said the agency is “two to three experienced attorneys away” from being able to accept those complex cases in the Nome and Bethel districts.

The Office of Public Advocacy provides advocacy and guardianship services for vulnerable Alaskans. It also is asked to represent individuals when public defenders face conflicts of interest.

James Stinson, the office’s director, said additional funds would allow for an increase in rates paid to contract attorneys.

Total increases proposed for this year and next for the two agencies, between Dunleavy’s original budget proposal, supplemental budget and Wednesday’s proposed amendments, are around $14.6 million, according to Dunleavy’s budget director, Neil Steininger.

Alaska isn’t the only state where funding for public defender agencies has been a concern. A lack of public defenders has strained Oregon’s criminal justice system. In Minnesota, legislation is advancing that would provide more funding for the state Board of Public Defense. That state’s public defenders last year reached an agreement to avoid a walkout, with attorneys expressing concerns with high caseloads.

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