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COVID and the Alaska Court System: Delays causing a backlog of cases

Published: Oct. 6, 2020 at 4:42 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Even as many court proceedings ground to a halt in the end of March, crimes were still committed and defendants were awaiting trial. All this has lead to a significant backlog in the court system.

COVID-19 upended life as we know it, so this week we are doing a series of stories on how the pandemic is affecting the court system. Catch up on part one where we talk about speedy trial rights, here.

“There is a serious backlog because we have suspended jury trials since March. So trials that otherwise would have been occurring are creating this backlog," said Chief Justice of Alaska Joel Bolger.

The existing cases aren’t the only problem creating the backlog, according to private Fairbanks Attorney Bill Satterberg, “Remember everyday you pick up the newspaper and read about various people getting arrested for various things, and every person that gets arrested is just more logs flying into the log jam.” Satterberg told us he has heard there are over 3,000 cases in Fairbanks waiting to go to trial.

Misdemeanor trials are expected to resume in November and felony trials are currently scheduled to resume in January. Once trials resume, Bolger expects that many cases will be resolved without ever going to trial. “Trials also have the advantage of requiring people to get serious about their cases,” he said.

Fairbanks District Attorney Joe Dallaire says that this will help the backlog. “I think that when trials resume, there is a greater likelihood that we will see case resolutions. That is kind of part of the nature of the system that the setting of trials and the threat of trials does tend to lead toward, or lead to case resolutions. So I think that we will see some cases resolved.”

While resolutions are more likely once trials resume, Satterberg said the DA’s office will have much of the responsibility in reaching resolutions. “Part of the problem and part of the solutions is going to be that the district attorney’s office especially -- and they are starting to -- but they are going to have to give their assistant district attorneys a lot of latitude to come up with creative solutions.” Satterberg suggested finding new ways to help people with first offense DUIs like alcohol management classes and a temporary license suspension. For first offense domestic violence cases, he suggested requiring counseling and anger management, and then consider dismissing the case. He said that this would help alleviate the pressure on the system.

Dallaire said his office is prepared to work through the cases to reach a resolution. “We are focusing our resources on which ones we should be trying, and I think we are just going to have to address those issues as we see things unfold in the coming months.”

Once trials resume, Bolger said he is confident the system will be able to work through the backlog. “I am not discouraged by the backlog that is occurring right now. I do expect that once we start doing jury trials we will resolve many of these cases. Trying criminal cases and then civil cases is what we do.”

Until then, cases will continue coming in and the backlog will keep growing.

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