Empty seats inside the Nome jury box

Within Alaska’s criminal justice system, the poor and vulnerable have experienced the greatest impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. KNOM reports on what those in the court system are saying about those affected.

“Indigent and marginalized populations are some of the hardest hit by the pandemic and the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.”

-Benjamin Muse

That’s Benjamin Muse, deputy director at the Alaska Public Defender Agency. He believes some of their clients have taken the brunt of the hardships dealt by the pandemic. The Alaska Public Defender Agency serves the public to provide legal representation to poverty-stricken clients who cannot afford an attorney. Muse notes that their work has been challenging in this unusual time.

Even the Alaska Court System did not have any fine-tuned plan to operate within the COVID pandemic, according to Chief Justice Joel Bolger.

“We had a broad continuation of operations plan, and it included things like earthquakes, and also included things like pandemics. But the plan did not envision a pandemic that was as severe and deadly as this pandemic.”

– Chief Justice Joel Bolger

Bolger and the presiding judges of the four judicial districts in Alaska meet weekly to discuss concerns and where action needs to be made. He believes that peoples’ rights are being maintained to the best extent possible consistently with the safety of everyone involved. The court and the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) has had to make adjustments in an effort to balance maintaining the judicial process and protecting the community from the transmission of the virus.

Muse points out, this is where maintaining someone’s rights to a fair and just process, like bail and a speedy trial, can be overlooked.

“There’s kind of a desire in a situation like this to streamline things, make things as efficient as possible, and we are working to make sure that our clients aren’t neglected and their rights are attended to during this time.”

-Benjamin Muse

The state continues to charge cases, and court proceedings that would usually occur in front of a judge have continued to do so telephonically at an effective rate. Nome’s 2nd District Court Administrator gave an update on how many court proceedings have occurred between March 1st and October 31st of this year; nearly 6,000.  More proceedings in that time period this year than within the same time period for 2018 and 2019.

Muse says the pressure to reduce any backlog within the system means that new procedures must be implemented.  Again, holding telephonic court hearings, suspending jury trials, and restricting visitation for those incarcerated.

Muse also recognizes a unique challenge brought on by suspended jury trials.

“We are dealing with clients who, some of them can’t make bail and are languishing in prison without any end in sight of their case because they can’t take their case to trial and be exonerated or bring finality to the legal proceedings that have been brought against them. Some of them are getting pretty desperate because we are going on a year, come March, with no jury trial.”

Without the specter of trial looming on the horizon, Muse says, defense and prosecution are less likely to feel pressure to resolve a case.  In a pre-pandemic setting, the legal parties would discuss a case and attempt to agree on a resolution based on facts of the case, and when they can’t come to an agreement, they move forward with trial proceedings. 

But with trials on hold, Muse says the defense and prosecution alike have no time constraints forcing them to delve deeper into the details of a case. District Attorney in Nome, John Earthman, agrees that cases are not reaching resolutions as they would pre-pandemic.

“The trial on the clock does keep things moving. The pressure of a trial does create resolutions, and not having that does defer resolutions.”

-District Attorney John Earthman

This has left many people in a state of limbo. Being in limbo is something that many people can relate to during this time, but the effects are magnified while incarcerated.

The Alaska DOC ended in-person visitation at the start of the pandemic. This not only limited the way in which an incarcerated person has contact with their counsel, but also their friends and family. Muse says it has also posed a challenge for public defenders working to build a trusting relationship with their clients and be an effective legal counsel. Moreover, it is having impact on clients’ sense of hope.

“Our clients are feeling very isolated and as anybody can imagine if you are charged with a crime, at the lowest point in your life, and you’re in custody, you probably want to speak with somebody. You want to speak with your attorney or your family members. It has made things very difficult and has been very hard on our clients.”

– Benjamin Muse

The lack of quality communication in this time of stress creates the hopelessness.

Across the state, in-person grand jury proceedings are suspended at least until February 1st, 2021, and in-person jury trial proceedings are suspended until at least March 15th, 2021.

Image at top: Empty Jury Box in Nome Courthouse on Front Street. Photo by Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM (2020).