Alaska’s courts are mired in cases, with gradual progress on pandemic backlog

By: Claire Stremple, Alaska Beacon

Juneau’s Dimond Courthouse and the Capitol building are seen in the afternoon light on Jan. 18, 2024. (Photo by Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska’s courts have had a backlog of cases since courts shut down for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. The backlog has persisted, in part because of attorney shortages.

The court typically carries many pending cases, but the number of pending cases is currently 27% higher for felonies and about 13% higher for misdemeanors than it was in 2019.

“The overall numbers are going down, which is what we want to see,” said Stacey Marz, the Alaska State Court System’s administrative director. “We want to see fewer cases that are pending.”

In the year prior to the pandemic, the courts usually carried 4,000-5,000 pending felony cases. At the height of the backlog, in January 2022, the courts had 7,348 pending felony cases. In January 2024, the courts had reduced that number to 6,440 pending felony cases.

There were just over 8,000 pending misdemeanors in January of 2019, more than 13,000 in January of 2022 and 9,312 in January of 2024.

The courts processed roughly 92,000 cases in the 12 months that ended in June 2023, so the current number of pending cases are roughly equivalent to 15% of a year’s cases.

Court records show that the typical amount of time it takes to process a case roughly doubled during the pandemic and has stayed high for both felonies and misdemeanors.

In his State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Peter Maassen called it one of the court system’s most daunting challenges. He said the courts will bring back retired judges to preside over cases whenever necessary.

“We recognize the impact this has on not just the criminal defendants but also the victims, family members, potential witnesses, and the public at large, and we want to make sure that the court system is never the cause of delay,” he said on Wednesday.

He said the court has made some structural changes to move more efficiently and Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Henderson leads a working group to bring the courts up to speed.

Correction: Justice Henderson’s position was incorrect in the original version of this article.