Public defender agency review recommends changes

Juneau, Alaska (AP) - The Alaska public defender agency is referring more cases to the Office of Public Advocacy because of conflicts of interest with other cases or clients, according to a state oversight report released Monday.

The number of conflicts jeopardizes the primary defense role the agency plays since the more cases the agency can't do, the more the Office of Public Advocacy and contract attorneys will do, the report said.

It said the public defender agency inconsistently reports the number of cases it has, and has had higher caseloads in offices where it has struggled to recruit and keep attorneys, and said the agency would be more efficient with more support staff. It suggested the agency could more effectively be using its resources.

Public Defender Samantha Cherot told a news conference in Anchorage, also attended by Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka, that her agency cooperated in the review.

Cherot, who was appointed earlier this year, said the agency will review the findings and recommendations and consider the part "they may play in long-term solutions and agency goals."

The oversight unit, public defender agency and Office of Public Advocacy fall under the department.

Tshibaka said the report was not written by political appointees and was written under standards used by inspector general offices.

The report said the conflict rate could be due to several factors, including that the public defender agency is fully integrated, with no practice areas or geographic offices "siloed off" from one another.

The report recommends the public defender agency and Office of Public Advocacy develop a uniform definition for counting cases. It also recommends that the public defender agency create a new unit walled off from other agency attorneys in hopes of reducing conflicts and strengthen its review of potential conflicts. It recommends a "small fee" be charged parents pursuing an appeal in child-in-need-of-aid cases.

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