Governor Proposes More Funds and Legislation To Benefit Public Safety; Direct Impacts to Western AK

An aerial view of Nome. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.

Governor Bill Walker announced earlier this year his proposals and plans to build a safer Alaska. Through multiple pieces of legislation, along with putting aside more money in the fiscal year ‘19 budget for public safety, the Governor aims to address the rising crime rate in the State. 

John Skidmore, the director of the criminal division under Alaska’s Department of Law, describes three of the four main sections of Walker’s Public Safety Action Plan:

“The first one is trying to improve outcomes, so like the passage of SB54 which gave prosecutors more tools to deal with first-time Class C felonies, or low-level theft offenses. The second component of the plan is talking about increasing resources. And the third component of the plan is looking at substance abuse treatment.”

And the fourth component of the plan focuses on combatting the opioid crisis through legislation. Walker has introduced several bills, one of which Skidmore says would change the punishments for certain drug related felonies.

“The Governor has introduced legislation that would allow us to schedule new substances through regulations. And then finally having a more serious crime for high level distribution, I’m talking about the people that have targeted Western Alaska because the sale of narcotics in those rural communities is so, so lucrative. The penalties really needed to be increased to create a disincentive to engage in that type of conduct.”

Quite a few of these proposals will have a statewide effect, but Skidmore also highlights a few things that would directly impact Nome and Western Alaska, such as adding a second prosecutor to the District Attorney’s office in Kotzebue.

“Which is pretty critical given the statistics of the casework that happens in the Kotzebue office. The Kotzebue office has the highest number of filings per attorney in the State, more than double what anybody else has. And so by adding a second position out there, which actually would be returning a position that was taken away two or three years ago, we would be able to bring that number down by half.”

Skidmore believes having an additional prosecutor will not only benefit the Kotzebue court system, but also Nome and everyone’s caseload in the region. Besides looking at adding new staff within the court system, Skidmore says the Public Safety Action Plan wants to make some changes to the VPSO program.

“Being able to do specific recruitments for VPSOs, potentially looking at cross-deputizing VPSOs, so they can also enforce tribal ordinances. There are other things like trying to get local communities, certainly local tribes, more involved in being able to have a say in public safety in their communities by trying to engage tribal courts as appropriate diversion programs from State courts.”

According to a statement from the Governor’s office, Walker’s budget adds $34 million for public safety efforts, money that would pay for two new prosecutors in Anchorage to help lead the charge in homicide cases, new prosecutors in Bethel and Kotzebue, a trooper pilot in Nome, and more. An additional $2 million would also allow troopers to travel for community policing efforts in rural communities.

Skidmore reiterated that he does not work for the Department of Public Safety, and since these features of the Public Safety Action Plan are not funded yet, he can only speculate on how a State Trooper pilot might operate in Nome.

“I don’t know if I would say that pilot would be responsible for 100% of those responses, because if you have to respond to two communities at once, then obviously that person can’t be two places at once. But the idea is that, right now, in order to be able to travel, Troopers have to book something commercially. Having their own pilot would reduce that dependence upon others significantly.”

Having a pilot dedicated to Troopers based in Nome, Skidmore believes would increase response time, make it easier to travel to communities in the region more often, and allow for community policing to take place before crimes happen.

Gov. Walker just submitted an amended version of his FY’19 budget proposal last week, but it is unclear how long it will take the Legislature to pass a finalized state budget and what provisions it will include.

Image at top: file photo: an aerial view of Nome. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.