February 23, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 8

Community feeling more frustrated following town hall meeting

“Justice was not served tonight,” said Petersburg City Councilman Don Koenigs, following an hour and a half-long town hall meeting to discuss the breakdown in communication and lack of services from the Juneau District Attorney's Office.

Suzanne Ashe
Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny (left) and Police Chief Jim Agner listen to community members and leaders discuss the problems with routinely dismissed cases by the District Attorney\'s Office.

The meeting, held on Tuesday evening at Wright Auditorium, brought community leaders and members together, to share opinions and ask questions regarding lack of communication and the seemingly high number of cases dismissed by the D.A.'s office in Juneau.

A reported 40 percent of cases filed with the D.A.’s office are dismissed. Many community members share the view that is too high of a percentage. The town hall meeting was held to ask for an explanation from Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny, who was in attendance at the meeting. Juneau District Attorney David Brower could not attend the meeting.

Svobodny who supervises about 120 lawyers across the state in the Department of Law’s Criminal Division, came armed with facts and figures regarding the dismissed cases and cases with reduced charges.

“I did run into somebody who told me to bring some barbecue sauce because I was going to be eaten alive,” Svobodny said.

Major topics of discussion for the evening centered around charges of domestic violence that are routinely pleaded down to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, illegal drug-use cases, minors consuming alcohol, and those who get caught supplying alcohol to minors.

Several community leaders and members spoke in the auditorium, sharing their concern that criminals were not being prosecuted, or let go on lesser charges.

The Juneau D.A.'s office has three prosecutors who are responsible for cases in Juneau, Petersburg, Haines, Yakutat and other smaller communities across Northern Southeast. Svobodny said, each attorney has a case-load of more than 300 at any given time. And living in Alaska, there is a tremendous amount of travel involved with many of the cases being heard in remote areas.

Police Chief Jim Agner said that a lack of adequate representation from the D.A.'s office, actually created more work for his department. Petersburg police officers spend more time in their office and less on the street, he said.

Among the many speakers at the town hall meeting Kimberly Kilkenny of Petersburg Mental Health Services really set the tone for much of the discussion for the remainder of the meeting. She described how case dismissals and plea-outs have impacted the community.

“One thing that I deal with on a daily basis are people who are victims of trauma where they didn't get justice – their case was dismissed from lack of evidence, they didn't get to talk to the D.A. prior to the trial – so, they're feeling victimized again,” Kilkenny said.

Kilkenny also expressed the aggravation victims of domestic violence feel when the accused attackers are routinely plead down to “harassment.”

“I guess if you beat up someone down the street you get charged [with assault], but if it's domestic violence, you get charged with harassment,” she said.

She also brought up other problems that have plagued Petersburg, such as illegal drug use, under-age drinking, furnishing alcohol to minors and DUIs – all charges that are typically plead down or dismissed.

Svobodny suggested that in cases with continual problems: “You should let the court, or the D.A. or in some cases, let me, know,” he said.

Svobodny also pointed out that cases involving minors who are caught consuming alcohol, for the first two violations, warnings are issued. “They aren't criminal law matters,” he said.

“It's really difficult to balance whether there should be a community standard, or a state-wide standard. I generally tend to agree, there should be a community standard,” Svobodny said in regards to supplying alcohol to minors.

According to the state-wide standard, he said, it's a suspended sentence the first time. But the second offense can result in jail time. “Sometimes, prosecutors are looking for the first cases, but not the best cases,” he said.

He added that if the community feels strongly about having certain cases prosecuted, such as supplying alcohol to minors, the D.A. should be notified.

Svobodny also addressed the issue of domestic violence charges being pleaded down. “I don't think you mean harassment, I think you mean disorderly conduct, that is fighting other than self-defense,” he said.

Svobodny explained that he looked into domestic violence charges in Petersburg for the year of 2010. He then gave examples of incidents that began with domestic violence charges, and were later plead down to disorderly conduct, or dismissed. Part of the explanation was that people who have been convicted of domestic violence, can't legally purchase firearms in other states.

“The people of Petersburg, in 2009, noticed the huge disparity between the [charges filed against] minors who consumed alcohol and the people that provided alcohol to the minors,” said Chief Agner.

He then explained that a town hall meeting was called several years ago to address the issues of both supplying alcohol to minors and also, minors consuming alcohol. The goal was to ask for tougher consequences.

Superintendent of Schools, Robert Thomason said, “I understand that people see other people do things and think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,’” explaining how criminal behavior is often justified by observing others getting away with breaking the law and not having to face justice.

Superior Court Judge William Carey, who happened to be in town hearing cases, was also in attendance at the town hall meeting.

According to Carey, the administration of justice is served when there it a district attorney present. “It helps to move cases along, it helps with judicial efficiency. I think it helps build trust in the community. I hope that this meeting will have some effect in this regard. Svobodny is a conscientious guy, and he wants to build a level of trust and cooperation here. I hope that will happen in the future,” Carey said.

Councilman Koenigs was not impressed with Svobodny’s explanations. He suggested possible solutions for the “lack of respect” Petersburg is getting from the D.A.'s office such as the people of Petersburg paying the salary of an additional attorney in the Juneau office, or sharing a prosecuting attorney with Wrangell and Kake.

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