Alaska State of the Judiciary: Learning to get comfortable with the term “cost-effective”

The National Center for State Courts has an archive of 2011, 2010, and previous years State of the Judiciary addresses located here.

Chief Justice Walter L. Carpeneti gave  the Alaska State of the Judiciary on March 9. Under the Legislature’s Uniform Rule 51, a joint session may be called by agreement of the presiding officers of both houses or by either house by motion adopted by a majority vote of the full membership of the house. Such an invitation appears to have been extended by the presiding officers, as there is no record of a separate resolution.

Highlights of the the Chief Justice’s speech (full text here) included:

I have served as Alaska’s Chief Justice for nearly two years, and from where I stand I believe our mutual commitment to a justice system that is fair, efficient and effective is stronger than ever. So while I’m here to report on where we have been and where we are going, I’m also here to thank you—for your support, for your dedication, and, most of all, for your enduring vision of a government that gives true meaning to the promise of justice for all.

When I spoke before you last year, I emphasized the theme of inter-branch cooperation and collaboration—the need for all three branches to work together to solve the problems facing Alaska’s citizens, and the many benefits gained when we do so. The past year has only underscored the value of working together, as we have successfully navigated a number of difficult challenges through common effort…I have to admit that it has taken me a while to get comfortable with using the term “cost-effective” in the justice context, because I’ve associated it with cost benefit analysis in the business world…In our justice system, we are learning that many of the cases that fill our court dockets — on both the criminal and civil side — can benefit from a similar principle: We need to reserve the most intense (and costly) services for the most intense cases, and to fully explore alternative, less intensive problem-solving solutions for cases that don’t demand full-throttle attention.

In criminal cases, the Criminal Justice Working Group continues to take the lead in examining ways to ensure the highest and best use of limited resources across the agencies and institutions involved in the criminal justice system. The Efficiencies Committee of the working group has made remarkable progress in addressing a perennial vexing problem that I mentioned to you last year: delay in criminal proceedings. We have all heard the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied,” and we can all appreciate the far-reaching costs of delay, not only to those who stand accused and their families, but to victims and their families, witnesses, the attorneys and agencies involved, and the court system itself. So it’s very exciting to learn that the committee initiatives I mentioned to you last year appear to be bearing fruit. First, a pilot project to facilitate the exchange of discovery in criminal cases is being instituted here in Juneau. Once in place, the project will enable law enforcement agencies to provide discovery to defense attorneys electronically, through a server based in the Department of Law…Second, the committee began a pilot project in Kenai to implement a shorter pre-sentence report, which gives judges the information they need to sentence criminal defendants..And third, over the past year the committee successfully addressed a long-standing problem at the Anchorage jail: the limited opportunities for defense attorneys to meet with their clients in advance of court proceedings…With these advances now under way, the Efficiencies Committee is beginning to address several other key challenges.

The Criminal Justice Working Group’s second major group, the Prevention- Recidivism Committee, chaired by Commissioner of Corrections Joe Schmidt, also had a productive and promising year…But I think the good news is that there are promising new approaches to criminal justice that are achieving goals once thought impossible. Today, we’re learning that jails and long jail terms — the most expensive tools in our corrections toolkit — can be focused on those offenders for whom other mechanisms to ensure public safety and accountability won’t work. For other offenders, we’re learning that alternative sentencing and corrections policies and practices, based on sound research and solid evidence, are effectively reducing crime rates at much lower cost.

As public officials who study the criminal justice system, members of the Criminal Justice Working Group know there is no one-size-fits-all response to the problems we confront. Offenders are all different, and communities are all different. But both our own experience and the national research give us new hope that we can slow down the revolving doors of our jails, and that this change can be lasting. We have a long way to go, but we are more confident than ever that we are heading in the right direction, with two new major initiatives now underway.

In July 2010, a pilot program was commenced in Anchorage to more effectively monitor probationers with substance abuse and addiction problems…Using the coercive power of the courts to hold probationers responsible for even the most minor violations helps keep them on the path to recovery and ultimately makes them better prepared to succeed on their own…Also new this year was the formation of the Reentry Task Force, a group charged with exploring ways to better ensure the successful reintegration of offenders back into their communities…Both the [pilot] program and the Reentry Task Force reflect the recognition that Alaskans are not well served by a justice system that returns offenders to their communities with little hope or likelihood that they will succeed, and with every likelihood that they will again commit harmful acts of crime.

Over 8200 family law cases were filed statewide in the last year alone. Of these about 67% involved at least one party without a lawyer. The commitment of judicial resources to these disputes is enormous, especially when couples have no legal counsel to help them navigate what is inevitably an emotional and stressful process. So against this backdrop, two new projects of the court’s Family Law Self-Help Center offer to not only provide improved information and assistance to self-represented litigants, but to significantly increase the number of cases that settle before trial, alleviating the strain contested proceedings place on court resources. First, the center will soon be making is popular Hearing and Trial Preparation Course available online through YouTube…A second promising initiative of the Family Law Self-Help Center is the new Volunteer Lawyer Assisted Early Resolution Project.

The court system’s Child Custody and Visitation Mediation Program has been tremendously successful in helping families reach amicable settlements. But today, as it celebrates its tenth anniversary, it is becoming a victim of its own success. In recent years, referrals to the program have risen dramatically, causing a 250% cost increase that exceeds available federal grant funding.

If there is a common theme to our recent family law efforts, it is one of matching family cases with the appropriate level of judicial intervention.

Apart from the improvements we are pursuing in both the criminal and civil areas, I’m delighted to report to you recent achievements in the technology arena that serve the goal of cost-effective justice. About ten years ago, the court system began the very tough job of implementing a statewide computerized case management system…Today, all 44 court locations statewide are connected to the network through CourtView, which has revolutionized not only the way courts communicate with each other, but the way courts communicate with the public. For the first time since Statehood, case information is available online to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

I would like to close these remarks with a note about a topic that in recent years has become, I believe, central to our democracy: the need to foster civic education and engagement in America — not just for the adults who face the responsibilities of citizenship today, but for the young people who will carry them forward into the future.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, the three branches of government can do little of lasting benefit working alone. This is as true with civic education as it is with justice delivery. Ensuring a strong future for this great country and great state of ours is a goal that we must pursue together. Thomas Jefferson said that “the qualifications for self-government are not innate . . . . [T]hey are the results of habit and long training.” As we work together to advance cost-effective justice, we must remember that the greatest guarantee of a strong future for all three branches of government is a citizenry that understands and embraces the fundamental principles of democracy.