March 29, 2012 | Vol. 39, No. 13

District Attorney’s office proposes small changes to Petersburg service

City official’s pleas for better communication and fewer reduced and dismissed cases from the District Attorneys may see some improvements in the near future. Although the City Manager and Police Chief fear it will not be enough.

In a town hall meeting on Feb. 21, the City Council, Police Chief Jim Agner, and community members asked Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny why about 40 percent of cases filed with the District Attorney's office are dismissed and a significant number are plea-bargained or reduced.

Agner expressed frustration among his officers who spend time investigating cases, only to have them over looked by prosecutors.

“If we are doing something wrong, we'll change,” Agner said regarding the preparation and referral of cases. “We just need to know, and that comes from better communication,” he added.

Svobodny who supervises about 120 lawyers across the state in the Department of Law’s Criminal Division, promised to look into the caseloads of the three attorneys in the Juneau D.A.'s office. He also said he would investigate solutions for better communication between the D.A.'s office and the City of Petersburg.

According to a letter, obtained by the Pilot, from Svobodny to Senator Bert Stedman, Svobodny outlines D.A. David Brower's four-pronged approach for increased presence in Petersburg.

First, Brower promises to keep in touch with the Petersburg Police via phone calls and emails.

“This contact would include requests for further investigation if necessary before a case is accepted or declined. This should help P.P.D. to improve the cases that are referred,” the letter states.

The D.A. will also keep track of the emails and phone calls between his office and P.P.D. “This is important because there is a misperception that the office does not have any contact with the police department,” the letter states.

The attorneys assigned to Petersburg will fly in on Sunday, instead of on a weekday, to allow time to contact police and possible witnesses before court, the letter states.

Also, Brower will be kept apprised of any issues that develop and of the amount of the Petersburg caseload.

The D.A. will also look into the possibility of having pre-trial hearings the week before the Petersburg Court calendar.

In the letter, Svobodny describes a formula for attorney caseloads. Svobodny separates cases into three categories: felony, misdemeanor and other matters. “Other matters” are appeals, extraditions, juvenile delinquency cases, general litigation, investigation petitions to revoke probations and other aid to agency matters.

Last year, the Juneau D.A.'s office prosecuted 312 felony cases, 982 misdemeanor cases and 175 other matters. Split that between three attorneys and it's an average caseload of 489.7 per attorney. Ketchikan, by comparison, also has three attorneys and last year prosecuted 237 felony cases, 1,061 misdemeanor cases and 145 other matters, with an average caseload of 481 per attorney.

Anchorage, on the other hand, has 35 attorneys and last year prosecuted 2,890 felony cases, 3,576 misdemeanor cases and 3,179 other matters, with an average caseload of 275.5 per attorney.

According to the letter, Svobodny compared Juneau and Ketchikan because both D.A.'s offices have three attorneys and the same overall caseload. But, Svobodny states, Ketchikan has fewer felonies, more domestic violence misdemeanors, three judges and three public defenders. There are four judges and five public defenders in Juneau.

Svobodny also states that the statewide trend for the last seven years for misdemeanors has been essentially flat. But for Petersburg, the trend has been declining except for last year.

From 2005 to 2010, the crime rate in Petersburg declined, but in 2011 there was increase in referrals to the D.A.'s office.

The increase “may portray an increase in the crime rate, or may indicate other issues like less experienced officers, change in policy, or change in what is referred. It is too soon to make a determination of the cause,” the letter states.

“I don't agree with the Dept. of Law's analysis that crime is down and that we've hit a small bump,” Agner said.

“I'm not sure what the City Council is going to say about this in their meeting, but the one thing that Svobodny' formula did not take in consideration is travel,” said Giesbrecht.

“I thought they would want to solve this,” Giesbrecht added. “Even with legislative help, it doesn't look like this is going to be solved.”

Sen. Stedman last week backed the Department of Law budget without making any changes to their criminal division.

A spokesman in Sen. Stedman's office said in an email “It sounds reasonable and Sen. Stedman said he will give the Department the opportunity to fix the problem internally before we start adding positions they haven’t asked for. Sen. Stedman said he will continue to monitor this issue and if the service in Petersburg doesn’t improve, he will intervene.”

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