Public safety is one of the essential duties of government in our country. The Alaska Constitution guarantees the right to security of our persons and homes, the need to protect the public, and the right to speedy and public trials. After years of high turnover among our state attorneys and their civilian counterparts — in total, there are nearly 600 public sector attorneys in Alaska — we are experiencing a recruiting and retention crisis, and we have decided to stop the hemorrhage this year.
We were the chairs of the Justice Department’s Finance Subcommittee and the House Judiciary Committee, respectively. Retaining competent prosecutors and Children’s Advocates in Need of Assistance, or CINAs, is the single most important thing we can do to improve public safety in Alaska.
We learned that a junior lawyer working for the Attorney General’s office starts with a salary of around $60,000. Meanwhile, their freshman equivalents in Montana, the Municipality of Anchorage, and the City and Borough of Juneau earn between $81,000 and $91,000 a year.
Simply put, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals in Alaska are severely underpaid. The results are predictable: there are fewer and fewer candidates for more and more vacancies. We don’t have the ability to prosecute cases brought by soldiers and police.
How did things come to this? Non-union employees must rely on the goodwill of the Legislative Assembly and the Governor to ensure they receive fair pay as the cost of living increases for all Alaskans. Yet we haven’t adjusted the pay of these essential public workers since 2015, when inflation kept rising. Unorganized workers have fallen behind classified workers by at least two rounds of bargaining agreements in the past seven years.
Every week, criminal justice professionals work as many free hours as they work on the clock. Indeed, they take the quality of their work to heart and have an ethical duty to zealously represent their clients. They also care about their reputation for being competent and dealing with absurdly high workloads.
The House Bill 226 salary increases will still leave state employee attorney salaries slightly below Montana’s starting salary of $81,000. While some suggest a 20% pay raise is too generous for prosecutors, consider this: The National Association of District Attorneys recommends a starting salary of $87,564. Even HB 226 falls short of that recommendation by around $15,000. However, we are convinced that this salary increase will go a long way to stem the recruitment and retention crisis at the prosecution. In addition, HB 226 sets future salary increases for attorneys at the rate of any increase in the state government supervisory bargaining unit. Now, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals, as well as other civil attorney agencies, must not be left behind.
To further show our commitment to improving public safety, we led the passage of Bill 416. Bill 416 allows a bonus of up to $10,000 for lawyers, and it has a sliding scale for paralegals and other personnel, as long as the employees remain in state employment until July 1, 2023.
Along the same lines, Alaska’s court system has a large workforce of unorganized workers — about 800 people — who are chronically underpaid. The fact that more than half of court staff with families of four are eligible for food stamps confirms the critical need to support the third branch of government.
Naturally, our civil and criminal lawyers, whether representing the state in court or ensuring constitutional balance by representing the accused, are related to court personnel. Culturally, they are cut from a similar sheet, with the fact that they have no natural advocate in Juneau when it comes to maintaining quality of life during a time when inflation is eroding government power. ‘purchase. Therefore, court staff also see a salary increase under HB 226.
Finally, in a bipartisan effort, we were happy to treat an amendment by Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, in the House Finance Committee as a friendly amendment, and it survived all the way to the Governor’s office. His amendment gives a 5% pay raise to all other exempt and partially exempt employees other than attorneys and court staff. As before, these people had not seen an increase in the cost of living allowance since 2015.
With these essential measures to invest in our public safety, we fervently hope to see real improvement in our criminal justice system. When we learned from the Deputy Attorney General, for example, that in the Civil Division alone, 93 of 143 positions had been vacant since just 2018, it was clear we had an unsustainable problem. The data from the Criminal Division was even more dire over the same period.
The state needs qualified attorneys to prosecute crimes, ensure the protection of children, and advance and defend the state on a multitude of issues. We believe that HB 226 and HB 416 will go a long way to recruiting and retaining talent in our workforces of lawyers, court personnel and other sectors of the public service.
Andy Josephson has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1998 and a state legislator since 2013. Matt Claman has been a member of the Alaska Bar since 1988 and a state legislator since 2015.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a wide range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for review, email comment(at)dna.com. Send submissions of less than 200 words to [email protected] Where click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and comments here.