Proposed class-action lawsuit claims Alaska prisons are holding people without criminal charges

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(Nome’s Anvil City Square, with a giant gold pan and statues of the “Three Lucky Swedes” whose discovery kicked off the 1899 Gold Rush, is seen on Sept. 5, 2021. Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

(James Brooks/Alaska Beacon) – A woman from Stebbins has sued the Alaska Department of Corrections, alleging that she and many other people in the state prison system have been unconstitutionally held in custody for more than 48 hours without being charged.

Barbara Pete, represented by the Northern Justice Project, filed suit Oct. 6 in Nome. The suit was first reported by the Nome Nugget.

According to court documents, Pete was arrested in Stebbins for domestic violence-related assault and taken to Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center, where she waited for more than two days to receive a judicial determination of probable cause.

The suit requests that a state judge issue a declaration that the Department of Corrections “has violated and is violating Article I, Section 14 of the Alaska Constitution by incarcerating Alaskans who were arrested without a warrant without a prompt judicial determination of probable cause.”

Nick Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project, is representing Pete and said they intend to seek class-action status and are trying to hear from others in her position.

“I would not be surprised if other people came forward,” he said, adding that he has already talked to public defenders whose clients have experienced similar charging delays.

Feronti said he believes there are problems statewide, but that the issue is most prominent in the Nome region.

Three years ago, Superior Court Judge Romano DiBenedetto formally scolded the Anvil Mountain superintendent and local district attorney for charging delays.

“It has come to my attention that there is a continuing issue of arrestees being remanded to AMCC without charging documents thereafter being filed,” DiBenedetto wrote.

That memo was written during the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted criminal court operations across the state, but Feronti said he believes the issue is continuing and needs attention.

The Department of Corrections had not been formally served with the lawsuit as of Friday. Deputy Commissioner April Wilkerson said by email that the department did not have an initial comment and would respond in court at the appropriate time.