Alaska's court system is opening up again -- and facing a backlog of cases

·3 min read

Jun. 5—As the coronavirus pandemic ebbs, Alaska's court system is slowly reopening.

But the criminal justice system now faces a growing backlog of cases that have languished during pandemic restrictions that shut down most jury trials and suspended defendants' speedy trial rights for more than a year.

Last March, as the pandemic began, some aspects of the everyday business of the justice system ground to a sudden halt. The Alaska Supreme Court issued sweeping orders, moving proceedings online, cancelling jury trials and suspending the court rule that guarantees defendants' right to a speedy trial.

Only a few trials have been held around the state over the past year. Attorneys and judges say without the pressure of looming trials, plea agreements have also stalled, leaving hundreds of cases languishing and victims, defendants and witnesses involved in limbo.

Fifteen months later, pandemic conditions have improved and jury trials are haltingly reopening around the state.

That alone won't resolve what some attorneys say is a crisis-level backlog that will be exacerbated when speedy trial rights — suspended during the pandemic — are restored.

"It's a huge problem without a really obvious solution," said James Christie, an Anchorage defense attorney.

Lower-level felony trials, which are usually shorter, are happening first. The most serious felony trials, including for murder, require longer time commitments from jurors and are expected to restart in July.

Brittany Dunlop, the Anchorage district attorney, says her office has five felony trials scheduled for the second half of June. In July at least seven trials are scheduled.

But trials are the tip of the iceberg.

During the pandemic year, cases that have languished in limbo without the time pressure of impending trial have stacked up.

More than 90 percent of criminal cases are instead resolved by plea agreement, where a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a negotiated reduction in charges. Those, too, have ground almost to a halt.

"Cases aren't moving," Dunlop said.

"Trials are really a very small percentage of what we do," she said. "But they're kind of what keeps the system moving."

The chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court says it's true that cases haven't been moving through the system quickly, but he has reason to believe that will change.

In Bethel and Juneau, the resumption of trials led to dozens of other criminal cases being resolved through plea agreements, said Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger.

"People when they're faced with the prospect of trial they take a more realistic view of their case and are more open to resolving the case," he said.

There's also the issue of what to do about what's known as "Rule 45,″ the Alaska statute that says defendants must be tried within 120 days of their charge unless they waive their right to a speedy trial. Cases can be dismissed if they don't progress in that timeframe.

The Alaska Supreme Court suspended Rule 45 in March 2020.

The rule has the effect of putting time pressure on the resolution of criminal cases, said James Christie, a longtime Anchorage defense attorney. It also acts as a bargaining tool for defendants and their attorneys.

Rule 45 remains suspended, more than a year later. It is scheduled to return at the end of July. When and if it is reinstated, there will be a "tsunami of cases that need to go to trial," Christie said. "There's just no way the system can handle that in the time period."

Bolger said the Alaska Supreme Court is acutely aware of the possibility that the restoration of speedy trial rights could swamp the system with a load of cases it can't handle.

"That is a real concern," Bolger said. "We want this thing to reopen fairly, so everyone's rights are protected."

"We will have to take some care to determine the right way" to restore the speedy trial rule, he said.

Meanwhile, opening arguments in a felony criminal trial are happening live in an Anchorage courtroom on Monday, for the first time in more than a year.

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