Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe warns that delays in some cases are compromising justice for Alaskans.
Fabe delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address to state lawmakers on Wednesday.
She highlighted various “Smart Justice” measures that cut costs and help streamline the state’s justice system, while reducing high recidivism rates. They include everything from electronic filing to therapeutic courts and an out-of-court Early Resolution Program for child custody and child support cases.
“New approaches to justice delivery are being earnestly explored and are gaining traction.”
Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Bud Carpeneti made a point of focusing on such “Smart Justice” initiatives when he made his last address to lawmakers.
They include everything from therapeutic courts, to a Family Law Self-Help Center, Circle Sentencing, a Child Custody and Visitation Mediation Program, and an out-of-court Early Resolution Program for child custody and child support cases.
Other recent measures include electronic court document tracking and filing, electronic bail status tracking, videoconferencing, evening and weekend courthouse hours, and retired judges picking up the slack in cases
“These are just some examples of the many ways in which we work with other justice agencies to ensure the wisest use of public dollars. And, our efforts to conserve resources are by no means one way,” Fabe said.
She also thanked lawmakers for their support on the court system’s biggest challenges.
But Fabe said two crises are developing.
She said swift resolution of Child-In-Need-of-Aid (common acronym is CINA, but pronounced as China) appeals are a Supreme Court priority, but the number of CINA appeals has already doubled in the last year and parties are asking for more delays in making their filings to the court.
“This threatened to create unacceptable postponements and a potential backlog in these critical cases. Many abused or neglected children in these cases are waiting to be adopted. A delay of a few extra months may go quickly for an adult, but this period of time can be an eternity for a child waiting for a permanent home,” Fabe said.
Meanwhile, the number of appeals in criminal cases has already increased 33 percent over last year. Attorneys are taking as long as two years to file their briefs instead of the maximum 80 days.
“Witnesses may not recall details of an event that occurred many years earlier, or they may not be available at all,” Fabe said.
She said court rules requiring fewer delays and expedited briefings will be enforced.
Doing more with less
Like other branches of state government, the court system is feeling the effect of declining revenues.
“It means working smart and doing more with less, so we can continue to operate in the manner the Constitution requires of us even in the face of budget constraints.”
Fabe highlighted the work of retired justices who fill in to help manage case loads, and the money the state saves by filing documents electronically. Legislators rapped their knuckles on their desks as a form of applause when Fabe noted the court system had found other ways to pay for a sobriety program and was returning a $40,000 legislative appropriation.
Fabe also touched on the need to improve judicial services in rural areas, an issue she stressed during her State of the Judiciary speech last year.
This was Fabe’s eighth address to the Alaska Legislature. She is in her third term as chief justice; she previously served in the position from 2000 to 2003, and 2006 to 2009. The chief justice is elected by the members of the Supreme Court.