The Alaska public defender agency is meeting its “ethical and constitutional obligations,” according to a Monday report released by the state's Department of Administration.

But Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka said the state is working on its recruitment and retention efforts for public defenders.

“We found that the PDA has been budgeted for a sufficient number of attorneys, but it has significant recruitment and retention challenges, particularly in regions outside of Anchorage,” Tshibaka said in a morning news conference. “The PDA has experienced higher case loads in those areas and that’s a concern for us.”

According to the report, the public defender agency lost 47 attorneys between July 1, 2017 and Oct. 16, 2019. In fiscal year 2019, the agency’s attrition rate reached about 23%.

The report noted the agency had not historically conducted exit interviews, but began doing so last summer. Some of the reasons for attorneys leaving, according to the report, included:

  • The public defender agency caseloads are more demanding than in other legal positions;
  • They can no longer handle the stress;
  • They feel they cannot handle cases competently;
  • They feel completely overwhelmed.

“The PDA faces more critical vacancy challenges in offices outside of Anchorage. In some situations, the PDA said it has had no applicants for advertised vacancies in these offices,” the report said. “As vacancies remain unfilled in these offices, more lawyers leave because the heightened caseloads drive them out, which creates even higher caseloads for the lawyers who stay. The cycle is then perpetuated, and attrition gets worse.”

House Judiciary Chair Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, said while it’s important to examine public defenders’ resources, he doesn’t want it to overshadow similar problems with the prosecutor’s office.

“Both areas, they are having difficulty retaining long-term, experienced attorneys and finding attorneys to go work in some of the rural smaller offices,” he said.

The report also noted how the agency has received more than $1.9 million in additional appropriations in the past two fiscal years. This includes 18 positions, most funded under Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Tshibaka stressed the report illustrates collaboration, not friction, between the public defender agency and the DOA, adding it reflects government performing the necessary oversight and review. She insisted the report is not a political document, but rather an objective report assembled by people who are not political appointees.

But the report prominently credits Dunleavy for increased budget appropriations for the public defender’s agency. In the morning news conference, Tshibaka said public safety is the governor’s priority and that includes the public defender agency.

“I think the facts are the facts,” she said. “We can say what the administration has done and that’s just simply a fact. The administration, which would be the governor, supports and advocates for the Public Defender Agency and the representation [of Alaskans] because public safety is his number one goal right now.”

Claman said he believed the report carries strong political overtones by citing the American Legislative Exchange Council, which he views has highly partisan.

“I think your starting point on anything like that is [National Council of State Legislatures] and [Council of State Governments],” Claman said. “Both of those have long, long histories of being explicitly non-partisan. Everything we see from ALEC is highly partisan and biased. I don’t know anything about the statistics that they cited here, but whenever I see a governmental report trying to be non-partisan and then they're citing ALEC, it starts looking much more political.”

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