Criminal Justice Working Group Update

Criminal Justice Working Group Update

Teresa White Carns

Carns, Teresa White. (2013). "Criminal Justice Working Group Update." Alaska Justice Forum 30(2): 10 (Summer 2013). An update on current work being conducted by the Criminal Justice Working Group (CWCG): a pilot electronic discovery project in Juneau; results of a study on how court-appointed counsel in criminal cases are appointed; information-sharing among criminal justice agencies; the Prisoner Re-Entry Task Force; and juveniles in the adult criminal justice system. CWCG is coordinated and staffed by the Alaska Judicial Council.

The Criminal Justice Working Group (CJWG), coordinated and staffed by the Alaska Judicial Council, focuses on two main aspects of the criminal justice system: crime prevention and reduction of recidivism, and efficiencies in the system. Supreme Court Justice Joel Bolger and Attorney General Michael Geraghty are the co-chairs. During the past year, the CJWG focused on the electronic exchange of discovery pilot project, the audit of appointment of public counsel, prisoner reentry, information sharing among agencies, waiver of juveniles to adult court, and a variety of shorter-term issues. The group also shares information about legislation, budget planning, and other matters of concern.

At its August 13, 2013 meeting, the group agreed that it could be more effective under present circumstances by meeting as a whole, without separate discussions as the Efficiencies and Prevention and Recidivism Committees. The subcommittees of Therapeutic Courts, Title 12, and Alaska Prisoner Re-entry Task Force will continue to meet and report to the CJWG.

Electronic exchange of discovery project. Discovery-the information about a case contained in police reports, photos, recorded interviews, and physical evidence such as clothes or weapons-is typically shared among the attorneys and parties in a case by means of paper copies, hard disks, and visits to the police evidence locker. A pilot project in Juneau that has been running for about six months now shares most of that information electronically. It is sent to a web site with password-limited access. From there, defense attorneys and prosecutors can look at it when needed. The site tracks the date that the information was posted, who viewed it, and when it was seen. Police agencies and attorneys all save substantial staff time, and the costs of making hard copies. CJWG members are discussing improvements to the Juneau system, and expansion to other areas of the state.

Appointment of public counsel. The Alaska Court System's (court) Criminal Rule 39 and Administrative Rule12 govern the appointment of public counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases. Over the past year, the court with the assistance of the Judicial Council studied about four hundred arraignment transcripts to gather evidence about the application of the rule in actual cases. The court found that in 12 percent of the arraignments, the defendant did not ask for public counsel after being informed of the right to have one assigned if the defendant was indigent. In 2 percent of the cases in which counsel was assigned, the court found inconsistencies between the defendant's statements and credit, employment, and other records. In only one case, the defendant apparently had sufficient funds, and in that case, the defendant had actually appeared the next day in court with a private attorney. Possible recommendations for action could include training for new or pro tem judges in the court standards for querying defendants about indigency. The court's next step is to present its findings to the supreme court, along with any recommendations for changes in the rules.

The court also surveyed private attorneys to find out the "going rate" charged in the private sector for different types of cases. Determining if a defendant can afford a private attorney depends on a combination of the defendant's resources and the rate that the private bar would charge for a particular kind of offense. The survey found that for lower level felonies and misdemeanors, the rates described in the current court rule continue to be valid. For the more serious felonies, however, private sector rates are now noticeably higher than those established in the rule.

The private attorney sector also intersects with public defender attorneys when a private attorney takes on a case, but the defendant runs out of money to pay fees before the case goes to trial. In that situation, the private attorney often asks that the court appoint a public defender attorney to continue with the case. This causes delays in the handling of the case, and problems for victims and the prosecution, as well as for the public defender attorneys who take on the case.

Information sharing among agencies. The CJWG and MAJIC (Multi-Agency Justice Information Consortium) have been receiving training on, and developing pilot projects for, using a new set of national standards for designing databases called Global Reference Architecture (GRA). At the June CJWG meeting, members reviewed proposed GRA projects in the context of other activity that would affect how information is shared. CJWG members will take into account Department of Law plans for a new case management system, court plans for e-filing and a new case management system, other agencies' existing data collection and case management abilities, and security requirements for all criminal justice data.

Members of both groups are also now working with the reconstituted Criminal Justice Information Advisory Board (CJIAB) to address the questions of how best to share information among agencies. The CJIAB is housed in the Department of Public Safety. It will meet quarterly to help criminal justice system agencies move forward in a way that respects each agency's needs and resources while sharing information for greater efficiency and improved public safety.

Prisoner reentry. Alaska's Prisoner Reentry Task Force has made significant progress during the past year, both as a group and on individual projects. One project especially worth noting has been the "Barrier Crimes Task Force." Barrier crimes are those that serve as impediments to housing, employment, and other activities needed to sustain a law-abiding life after conviction on an offense. A felony conviction, in and of itself, prevents an offender from voting for a period of time, gaining access to various social services and resources, and may discourage employers and landlords. The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction Project, a joint initiative of the American Bar Association and the National Institute for Justice, recently inventoried all 508 of Alaska's statutes and regulations that have consequences for convicted offenders, and posted them on its website at Values?id=Alaska. The Barrier Crimes Task Force will now consider what steps can be taken to improve the situation for offenders. With reduced barriers to reentry, offenders will recidivate less often, and public safety will still be protected.

Juveniles in adult criminal justice system. Alaska statutes require that juveniles age 16 and 17 who are charged with the most serious offenses (including robbery, serious assaults, and homicides) be tried in adult court and housed in Department of Corrections facilities rather than handled in the juvenile justice system. The Division of Juvenile Justice has studied the cases handled since the law took effect in 1996, and has found that youths whose cases were handled in this way have a higher recidivism rate than those of similar ages and backgrounds who stayed in the juvenile system. The CJWG members will continue to track the situation and consider possible recommendations, such as increasing discretion for judges in some instances.

Burning issues. At each CJWG meeting, members consider "burning issues"-new problems that have come to light since the previous meeting, ongoing situations that need attention, and sharing of information about new topics that weren't on the group's agenda. Among the burning issues considered in the past year were the need for wi-fi for Bethel attorneys and jurors (wi-fi was provided), announcement of a new report on the situation of Mental Health Trust trustees in the Department of Corrections for the years 2008-2013, and receipt of legislative funds to take an existing reentry project from a pilot with a few participants to full scale in Anchorage. The reentry project, a collaboration among Partners for Progress, Alaska Native Justice Center, and Nine Star Education & Employment Services, will provide temporary housing for returning prisoners, along with services and support for sober living.

Teri Carns is with the Alaska Judicial Council in Anchorage, with responsibility for research projects, report writing, and aspects of judicial selection and retention.