The Alaska Court System is one of many agencies impacted by state budget cuts. For rural communities like Haines, where residents are already separated from some court services, the impacts of a shrinking budget are compounding existing frustrations.
Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg, representatives from Juneau’s Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office, Haines District Court, local police department and local government came together for a community meeting in Haines.
Pallenberg covers Superior Court cases out of Haines. He’ll soon take over for retiring District Court Judge Thomas Nave, who also covers Chilkat Valley cases. Pallenberg is based in Juneau.
“I feel really strongly the court should bring justice to the people as much as possible and do as many trials as I can in Haines,” Pallenberg said.
But because of the time and money it takes to travel between Haines and Juneau, it’s common for some court proceedings to be held telephonically.
“If I’ve got an hour-long hearing, I can’t necessarily travel to Haines and miss a whole day out of my court calendar to do it,” Pallenberg said. “With the travel time, I’ve got a busy calendar. I can’t always do it. But as much as possible I do. And if I have an all-day trial and the people are here, I’ll come to them.”
Haines Police Chief Heath Scott said he feels when court business is done telephonically, justice isn’t served adequately.
“If we can change behavior through sets of circumstances, like inconveniencing someone to be in front of a judge, and they see that judge, and that judge, in the courtroom, and the structure of the courtroom, holds them accountable to stand up straight, not chew bubblegum, get their hands out of their pockets, and they feel the frustration of being before somebody like yourself, then maybe we can change that behavior,” Scott said.
Scott said he hopes in the future, the court can better utilize available technology.
“That at least when you are unable to sit here in Haines, and when Judge Asper is unable to sit here in Haines, they are seeing some form of structure,” Scott said. “They are being held in some way accountable.”
Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige suggested Haines could benefit from using a polycom system, to allow for video conferencing.
“I think it would help with what Chief Scott pointed out,” Paige said. “Which is that it does increase the severity of the circumstances. People take it more seriously when they can see the judge that’s responding to them.”
Clayton Jones provides administrative support for the First Judicial District. He said Haines already has the technology to do this. But, whether it would be reliable on a regular basis is uncertain.
“Depending upon the bandwidth that day — we all certainly have felt the effects of having a cruise ship in town and what that does to our bandwidth,” Jones said. “So we do face some realities of not being able to use it 100 percent of the time.”
Amid state budget cuts, the court system has consolidated responsibilities throughout the state.
A few years ago, Haines’ magistrate judge retired and Yakutat Magistrate Mary Kay Germain took over his responsibilities, in addition to covering Yakutat and Hoonah. Soon after, retired Judge Linn Asper came back to the Haines court on a part-time basis. His current appointment ends in about a year.
The court system still plans to consolidate magistrate positions, with one judge serving several communities. Court hours have also been reduced in recent years.
Borough Manager Debra Schnabel called the reduction of court services ‘alarming’.
“It’s tragic,” Schnabel said. “That is what we’re supposed to be doing is carrying justice. And it’s not getting done.”
Budget cuts have affected resources for state prosecutors as well. But Assistant D.A. Paige said she still takes on as many local cases as she can.
“I at least take every case that comes from the Haines Borough Police Department seriously,” Paige said. “And I prosecute as many as I can. Not because I want to send people to jail but because it increases the quality of life and it can really help people if they can get into rehabilitation services.”
Judge Pallenberg held this community meeting on a day he was already in Haines to hear a trial. But the trial was postponed the morning it was supposed to start.