With budget amendments, Gov. Dunleavy proposes big increase for Alaska public defenders

Staffing shortages have caused officials to restrict the number of high-level felonies they accept in some rural courts

By: - February 16, 2023 4:00 am

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses a proposed budget increase for the Office of Public Advocacy and the Public Defender Agency on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

After warnings that Alaska’s state-provided criminal defense for poor Alaskans is so weak that it may violate the state constitution, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is proposing budget increases to address the issue.

The governor’s amended budget, released Wednesday, includes an additional $8.3 million spread across two fiscal years for the Office of Public Advocacy and the Public Defender Agency. That’s atop a $6.2 million increase that was proposed at the end of January.

The money would allow the state to hire more staff and increase its pay rates for private-practice attorneys who defend clients on contract for the state. Staff shortages have caused the Public Defender Agency to stop accepting high-level felonies in some rural courts. 

Combined, the two increases would be a 22% increase from the budget proposed in December.

“I’m not going to say that this is a silver bullet,” said James Stinson, director of the Office of Public Advocacy. 

“There’s always going to be challenges with staffing and other things. But this is a pathway forward,” he said.

James Stinson, director of the Office of Public Advocacy, discusses a proposed budget increase for OPA and the Public Defender Agency on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The budget amendments proposed Wednesday also include significant increases to the budget for the Division of Public Assistance, which has been struggling with a backlog in food stamp applications, and to public safety. After 18 people died in Alaska prisons last year, the amended budget includes money for a trooper to investigate in-custody deaths.

Many of the state’s agencies, including public defenders, are struggling to hire and retain employees, and the amended budget includes multiple approaches to address that problem. The Department of Administration, for example, is in line for $1 million to conduct a statewide salary study intended to determine whether state salaries are low compared with similar jobs in the private sector.

Public Defender Samantha Cherot, head of the Public Defender Agency, told judges in late January that staffing shortages in her agency meant that starting Feb. 13, they could no longer provide legal defense for people accused of high-level felonies in Nome or Bethel.

Those letters were first reported by the Anchorage Daily News.

The Alaska Constitution requires the state to provide legal defense to those who cannot afford it, and on Wednesday, Cherot confirmed that the new policy went into effect on Monday, though no high-level crimes have been filed in Nome or Bethel yet.

“We hope the current position we’re in is very temporary and short-term,” Cherot said, “and we really are just two to three experienced attorneys away from being able to accept these appointments in the most serious cases in Nome and Bethel.”

Of Wednesday’s amended budget request, she said, “I think these funds are critical to being able to offer more competitive pay to private attorneys to hopefully take some of these cases in the interim, to provide some relief for our already overburdened attorneys.”

Dunleavy said it’s impossible to tell whether someone would file a lawsuit over the shortage, but based on conversations that resulted in the increase, he hopes it’s enough to forestall a legal challenge.

“We believe that the resources we’re putting forth in this amended budget will take care of that issue,” he said.

Though Cherot and Stinson praised Wednesday’s announcement, the money won’t arrive for months and isn’t certain. From here, the proposed increase is in the hands of the Legislature. 

State law requires governors to publish a budget proposal in mid-December, but they can amend that proposal until mid-February, and that latter date, known as the amended budget deadline, typically represents a governor’s final proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.

Legislative subcommittees are already examining the budgets of state agencies, and their work will be combined into separate budget proposals from the House and Senate. 

Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage and chair of the subcommittee considering the public defender budget in the House, said the backlog in the courts is unacceptable and “the need is real.”

“I think the increase will be good. It will increase the number of lawyers that would be willing to take on cases. And I just think the quality of the attorneys will come up. So I totally support the increase,” she said.

The House and Senate budget proposals will be negotiated into a final compromise budget, which will go back to Dunleavy. He may sign it, veto it, or veto specific sections. He cannot unilaterally add funding. The new budget will go into effect July 1.

The governor said he expects the budget “to morph through the next several weeks” and that discussions with legislators will continue.

In total, the governor’s amended budget proposal includes $7.4 billion in state spending and has a deficit of slightly more than $400 million, which the governor proposes to cover by spending from savings.

Several state lawmakers have noted that the $2.5 billion allocated for this year’s Permanent Fund dividend — worth an estimated $3,860 per recipient — is the largest item in the budget, and reducing that item could eliminate the deficit, free spending for additional priorities and allow the state to pay down debt. 


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]