Chief justice says courts working on accessibility

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Alaska's judiciary is trying to make the court system more effective and more accessible through innovations such as mental health and alcohol courts and a center to help people who want to serve as their own lawyers, Chief Justice Dana Fabe said Wednesday.

In the annual State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature, Fabe called for increased collaboration and communication between the court system and the Legislature, the executive branch and the public.

She applauded legislators' discussions of setting up pilot therapeutic courts for repeat drunken drivers in Anchorage and in rural Alaska. Such courts call for defendants to address underlying problems that lead to repeat offenses while being carefully supervised by a judge.

''National results show a distinct reduction in repeat offenses for the defendants who are involved with these programs,'' Fabe said.

Three courts in Alaska now are based on this model, she said. A mental health court in Anchorage tries to ensure chronically mentally ill offenders receive the help they need to stay out of jail. Also a district court judge in Anchorage is working with chronic alcohol abusers who commit crimes, and an Anchorage Superior Court is working on setting up a felony-level drug court.

The court would be happy to work with the Legislature on setting up therapeutic courts for repeat drunken drivers, Fabe said. She called that an example of ways the three branches of government can work collaboratively.

The courts are also trying to make the system more understandable and accessible to the public. This is done partly through events such as Law Day, in which judges and magistrates put on educational programs for students, and through ''Meet Your Judges'' forums for adults planned throughout the state this year.

''Judicial independence and judicial neutrality do not depend on our court processes being shrouded by mystery or judges being detached from their communities,'' Fabe said. ''Maintaining a wall between the court and the community prevents the community from understanding the role of the court and keeps the court from fully enlisting the resources of the community.''

The Supreme Court's Access to Civil Justice Task Force is also trying to provide citizens who can't afford lawyers better access to the system. Their recommendations included expanding a program in which lawyers offer free services and increasing funding for Alaska Legal Services, particularly in rural communities.

The court also plans to set up a ''pro se center'' in Anchorage, which will provide information and assistance for pro se litigants -- those who decide to represent themselves in court without a lawyer.

The court just completed an agreement with the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the state Child Support Enforcement Division that will let the state recover some state funds spent in child support cases. Fabe said the court will be asking for permission to use those funds to set up the pro se center.

Legislators generally responded positively to Fabe's address, including some who have been critical of past judicial decisions, such as Sen. Dave Donley, R-Anchorage. He called Fabe one of the state's brightest judges and a good administrator.

''I welcome her offer of increased communication,'' Donley said.

He also said he would support funding for pilot drunken driving therapeutic courts.

''These are some really encouraging developments in the area of alcohol abuse, things that really work,'' Donley said. ''I think it could be a very wise investment.''

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