Leah Van Kirk, Southeast Alaska Pretrial Enforcement Supervisor, speaks from the new pretrial office on Sherwood Lane on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Leah Van Kirk, Southeast Alaska Pretrial Enforcement Supervisor, speaks from the new pretrial office on Sherwood Lane on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Pretrial enforcement showing promising signs

A man came into Southeast Pretrial Enforcement Supervisor Leah Van Kirk’s office about a month ago after being arrested.

Van Kirk was going to get him set up with electric monitoring that would track the man’s location while he awaited his court date, she recalled. She was surprised by what the man said when he sat down with her.

“Do you know what my real problem is? My drinking,” he said. “My drinking has gotten out of control and it led me to be in this situation and I have to change that.”

Van Kirk quickly rounded up information about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in town and began the process of getting him set up with a portable machine that he would blow into to track his blood-alcohol content.

It was all at the man’s request, Van Kirk pointed out, and that’s exactly how the newly installed pretrial program is supposed to work. The program is showing some positive changes, she said, but those at the Department of Corrections say it’s a little too early to make any large conclusions.

Since the installment of the pretrial program (which was part of Senate Bill 91) on Jan. 1 of this year, the Pretrial Enforcement Division has been changing the way the process works as defendants await their trial. When someone is arrested for a crime, he or she is assessed by pretrial officials on whether they should await trial in or out of jail.

[Alaska switches to new system of criminal justice]

The pretrial assessment puts defendants on a numeric scale of how likely they are to either commit a new crime while awaiting trial and how likely they are to miss their trial date. Pretrial Services Director Geri Fox said that as of March 19, more than 3,800 people have been assessed.

The assessment goes to attorneys and judges prior to a subject’s arraignment (which is often the day after a person commits a crime), and the judge makes the decision about whether the subject should stay behind bars before his or her trial or whether the person can spend that time outside of prison.

If defendants spends time outside of prison, they can live at home and go to work. The pretrial office will still monitor them, the aim of which is two-pronged. On one hand, supervision helps keep tabs on the defendants. On the other, it also provides services to them.

Van Kirk, who runs the Southeast Pretrial Enforcement Division, said she’s been surprised at how many services they can provide to defendants.

“Some people need substance abuse referrals,” Van Kirk said. “Some people need someone to say, ‘What’s the problem here? You keep coming back to the system, so what do we need to do to support you?’”

Dean Williams, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said this change to the system helps “put teeth into” the way they monitor people before they go to trial. He said this program is not just cutting people free after they commit a crime, but that it’s actually monitoring them more closely.

“That improves public safety,” Williams said. “If I can keep those people in line before they get to their court date and they’re not committing any crimes, that’s reducing crimes.”

Waiting for long-term conclusions

Just two and a half months into the program, Williams and Fox said, it’s hard to assess any long-term effects of the change. Williams said they might be able to start making conclusions at the six-month mark.

In 2017, Williams said, 37 percent of people who had been released after committing a crime ended up committing a new crime before their scheduled court hearing. He also said 14 percent of those people failed to show up for their court hearings.

Those numbers, he said, need to drop. He thinks the pretrial program will bring those numbers down in the long term, but said those numbers might rise in the short term. So far, he’s been right.

Fox said the number of new crimes being committed is increasing. She said this — which was Williams’ reasoning as well — is in part because the defendants are being monitored more closely, and in part because a conditions violation is now being counted as a new charge instead of being lumped in with the previous charge.

Fox said there were 132 people in Southeast under pretrial supervision as of March 19. She didn’t have the numbers for Juneau specifically, but said five people in Juneau are currently under electronic monitoring.

During this legislative session, Williams said, he’s trying to convince lawmakers to make one tweak to the pretrial system. At the moment, the pretrial assessment only takes in-state crimes into account. Williams said they need to be able to put out-of-state prior convictions into account as well.

If a person commits a low-level property crime, Williams said as an example, and it’s the person’s first crime in Alaska, that person is fairly likely to be released. The problem, Williams said, is that if that person committed a violent crime in another state, that isn’t taken into account.

Making this change, Williams said, would give judges a more accurate picture of a defendant’s history and would allow them to make more informed decisions.

“This is a small fix,” Williams said, “but it’s an important fix.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.