With limited resources, prosecutors in Western Alaska struggle to prioritize massive caseloads

Police vehicles parked in front of the Kotzebue Police Department building. (Wesley Early/ KOTZ )

Prosecuting crimes in Western Alaska can be tough, with just a few lawyers assigned to thousands of cases annually. Local prosecutors often have to prioritize the most serious cases, while dismissing lesser crimes that might be prosecuted in other parts of the state.

Kotzebue’s district attorney position is currently vacant. The office is being temporarily overseen by Nome District Attorney John Earthman. Earthman says, in addition to numerous ongoing investigations, Nome sees about 1,000 new cases a year. The numbers in Kotzebue are similar.

“Roughly 1,000 new cases per year,” Earthman said. “That includes Kotzebue, the villages of the NANA region plus Point Hope. That’s a lot of cases for what is a two-attorney office.”

And that two-attorney Kotzebue office was vacant for about nine months. That was after Gov. Dunleavy appointed both assistant district attorneys in the Kotzebue DA office to fill judicial seats in Valdez and Homer. From December 2019 to September 2020, Earthman says some cases were picked up by the Nome DA office, but most of them were handled out of Anchorage.

Nome also lost an assistant district attorney last year, when Dunleavy appointed him to the Palmer District Court.

Earthman says getting qualified prosecutors to come out to rural Alaska has been a chronic problem.

“I think it’s a shame because living in Kotzebue or Nome or whatever … I think people are lucky to be able to do that,” Earthman said. “But it’s not for everyone. And it’s getting harder and harder to get people to even want to do these jobs out here.”

Kotzebue now has two prosecutors. Nome should be getting a new prosecutor in the summer. Averaging more than one new case a day each, Earthman says that prosecutors often have to focus on higher level crimes.

“They have very limited resources and their focus is going to be on the most serious offenses,” Earthman said. “Murders, sexual assaults, domestic violence and DUIs … that type of thing.”

Earthman says his office is working to help shoulder some of those cases by hiring a new prosecutor whose caseload will be more focused.

“To handle sex cases, investigations and prosecuted cases, in both Nome and Kotzebue,” Earthman said.

Earthman is hopeful that the new position will ease the workload of prosecutors in both Nome and Kotzebue to work on other crimes in the area. In the long term, he wants them to stick around, stating that the longer a prosecutor works in rural Alaska, the better informed they’ll be on crimes facing this part of the state.

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