Local and state prosecutors told Anchorage Assembly members they are on the verge of sealing a deal which would enhance their cooperation on domestic-violence cases, as the body considers a measure which would allow the municipality to prosecute its first-ever felonies.

The assembly’s Public Safety Committee convened Wednesday at City Hall. Its chair, Eric Croft, has drafted an ordinance which would allow municipal prosecutors to take on felony domestic-violence assaults – something the muni historically hasn’t done as a home-rule city, instead focusing on lesser crimes.

“We have only ever asserted our home-rule jurisdiction to misdemeanors — we have never extended our scope to criminal felonies,” Croft said at the session. “We have the jurisdiction to go into felony-land.”

Assembly members and prosecutors said the ordinance was prompted by a January discussion at an assembly work session, at which local officials considered handling felony cases. Municipal prosecutor Seneca Theno mentioned a number of violent assaults against women which Anchorage Police referred to state prosecutors, only to have prosecutors decline them.

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Anchorage District Attorney Rick Allen, with the state Department of Law, said outside the meeting that the declinations were the result of tight state budgets, coupled with back-to-back record-breaking rises in Anchorage’s annual toll of homicides.

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“As Mr. Croft said, we all agreed that these DV assaults are super-serious, but when you’re up to your eyeballs in murders and homicides, you have to make choices,” Allen said.

Croft, a former prosecutor who expressed sympathy in January for both the local and state sides of the situation, said the muni is well-positioned to take on those cases.

“A lot of our misdemeanor caseload is domestic violence, unfortunately, drunken driving and other things,” Croft said.

Municipal attorney Rebecca Windt Pearson said that she had a number of “resource-based concerns” about the proposal, saying the municipality could take on additional prosecutorial and jailing costs with no corresponding increase in resources to meet them.

“I understand that if we open this door, it opens to a number of additional issues,” Windt Pearson said. “It isn’t that we could pick up this thing without sacrificing something else.”

Allen said that Croft’s draft resolution – which adds offenses and sentencing guidelines for felony assault based on state statute to municipal code – might encounter some legal snags. For instance, state statute only provides for the formation of grand juries used in some felony cases by the Department of Law.

“I just think there are a lot of practical issues that you haven’t factored in,” Allen said. “There are just a number of practical differences between District Court and Superior Court and how that works.”

Allen and Theno laid out an alternative plan, nearly finalized after extensive discussion between their offices, which would put a pair of APD members and a municipal prosecutor in Allen’s office to assist with follow-through work on felony cases.

“We are really close to reaching a solution that allows both parties to put some skin in the game and maximize the resources available for fighting crime in the community,” Theno said.

Allen said he didn’t believe any local police department has had detectives or investigators in a state district attorney’s office in his memory.

“At least in terms of modern history, this would be a new move,” Allen said.

Several Assembly members also weighed in Wednesday’s discussion. Chair Dick Traini said he thought addressing the domestic-violence assaults brought up in January was “critical,” saying they could be a gateway to more severe crimes.

“These things start as attacks on people, and if they’re not handled they get worse – they become murders,” Traini said.

Eagle River Assemblymember Fred Dyson, told that a municipal prosecutor typically earns $70,000 to $100,000 – less than a state counterpart – echoed that view.

“I would gladly take a hundred thousand dollars for this from downtown flowers,” Dyson said.

Downtown Assemblymember Christopher Constant said that while he agreed with the severity of the crimes declined for prosecution by the state, he was concerned about spending “millions and millions of dollars” under Croft’s proposed ordinance versus the prosecutors’ proposal.

“We’ve heard, according to the testimony here, that we could achieve the same effect or close to it at the same cost or perhaps a little more,” Constant said.

Members also discussed the release on bail and subsequent failure to appear of a woman arrested in connection with gunfire outside the Northway Mall, under state pretrial guidelines which omitted consideration of her Outside felony history in California. Asked if the bail guidelines have been a hole in the system, Allen said that “it obviously has been.”

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“Every time you have someone with an out-of-state criminal history, you evaluate that as a factor in whether to prosecute them,” Theno said.

“Can I fix that by ordinance?” Croft asked.

“No,” Theno replied.

East Anchorage Assemblymember Forrest Dunbar praised a letter, drafted by Croft, which would ask the state’s House and Senate Judiciary committees to address the pretrial system.

“I intuitively agree with this proposal to ask the Legislature,” Dunbar said. “I would also like to hear from the other side – the Legislature, the ACLU – to see if there’s anyone who actually supports this.”

Allen said the municipal prosecutor assigned to his office will likely accompany a unit dedicated to investigating sexual assaults, set to form this summer. The new unit will offer the transfer-employee the chance to investigate domestic violence as well as sexual assaults, as well as recommend priority Anchorage cases to state officials.

Croft thanked Allen for attending Wednesday’s meeting, which Dunbar said marked the first appearance of an Anchorage district attorney at one in at least the past two years.

“We get frustrated when these things are not being prosecuted, but they’re at the lower end of your level,” Croft told Allen. “Maybe instead of spending time being angry at each other, we can just solve it.”

Theno said the agreement, modeled on existing agreements between state and federal prosecutors, likely won’t take effect until late summer. Locals should expect “no change” in municipal prosecutions until then.

Copyright 2018 KTVA. All rights reserved.

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