The progression of a recent burglary case in Haines shows the practical toll state budget cuts are taking on the local justice system.
In September, the Haines Public Library was the site of two break-ins. A few days after the second incident, police identified a suspect and charged him with felony burglary.
But on the defendant’s arraignment date, the Haines court was closed. The magistrate retired a couple months ago and the only local court employee left, the clerk, was on vacation.
So, the arraignment took place at the Haines Police Station. The defendant, along with a police officer and reporter, crowded into the police chief’s office. The arraignment was teleconferenced between three different locations: the defendant in Haines, his public defender and the prosecutor in Juneau, and magistrate Mary Kay Germain in Yakutat.
“It’s a lot of juggling,” said Haines Police Chief Heath Scott.
Yakutat-based Germain is now the magistrate in charge of Haines cases. Magistrates are judicial officers with more limited authority than District Court judges. They can hear minor offense cases and preside over preliminary felony hearings.
“Ideally we would have magistrate judges in every community,” said Trevor Stephens, the presiding superior court judge for the First Judicial District, including Haines.
Stephens says when longtime Haines magistrate John Hutchins retired in August, the Alaska Court System made a decision based on its slimmed-down budget.
“Just the way that the openings worked, we had an experienced, well-regarded judge in Yakutat, so rather than lay that person off or force them to move to Haines, we did it this way,” Stephens said.
Germain’s hours were extended, and she was given magistrate duties for two other courts, Haines and Hoonah. Speaking from Yakutat in early October, Germain said handling three courts has been a huge increase in her workload.
“Today alone I had five Haines hearings and three Hoonah hearings,” Germain said.
Germain’s travel schedule includes one week each month in Haines. While in the other locations, she’ll handle Haines cases by teleconference.
In October, the logistical hurdles were compounded because Haines’ last remaining court employee – clerk Bonnie Hedrick – was on vacation. Criminal cases have been bounced around to Yakutat, Wrangell and Skagway magistrates in recent weeks. Some defendants have been arraigned by speakerphone from their jail cell.
“The disservice is not to [the police department,] it’s really to the people and the legal system,” Police Chief Scott said.
The impacts of budget cuts on the burglary case didn’t stop there.
Initially, assistant district attorney Amy Paige hoped to convene a grand jury on the case soon after the arraignment. But budget cuts changed the DA office grand jury process. Before, Paige says grand juries were convened once a week, on Fridays. But now, Alaska courts are only open until noon on Fridays. That means the DA office now convenes grand juries on Wednesdays, cutting preparation time in half.
“It has become extremely difficult for us to ensure that we can collect all the materials we need to present cases to the grand jury,” Paige said.
In the Haines burglary case, Paige wasn’t able to make the initial grand jury deadline of Oct. 7.
“So given that time constraint, I had to make a decision to reduce the case to a misdemeanor as a placeholder,” Paige said.
The placeholder didn’t last for long, though. On Oct. 12, Paige brought the felony case to a grand jury. The suspect was indicted on the two felony charges.
Although this particular case is proceeding, Paige says budget cuts mean prosecuting fewer cases. She says it’s not just the budget situation, but the passage of crime reform bill SB 91, which lessens penalties on certain offenses.
“The combination has resulted in cases I would have previously accepted for prosecution no longer being accepted,” Paige said. “Because I just don’t know that I have money to prosecute offenses of that degree any more in these new times.”
So, budget cuts have impacted the Haines justice system logistically, with less face-time between defendants and magistrates. And, they’ve reduced prosecutors’ ability to see cases through to the end.
There is one piece of good news for Haines. Judge Stephens says given the local caseload, he wants to restore the Haines-based magistrate position.
“I don’t see this as a long-term situation,” Stephens said.
He says ‘if the opportunity presents itself,’ the court system may bring a magistrate judge back to Haines.