Court system offering more alternatives

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The Alaska Court System is trying to keep more people out of court -- or at least out of traditional, adversarial court proceedings.

The courts have established several small mediation programs that are often keeping people out of the traditional proceedings, Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe said in her annual speech to the Legislature on Wednesday.

''In cases involving families with children, mediation is an especially promising alternative,'' Fabe said.

Child custody and visitation mediation programs are now operating in 10 superior court locations, and last year almost 200 cases were referred to the programs, Fabe said. In more than 75 percent of those cases, agreement was reached on some or all the issues.

Six courts also have mediation programs aimed at resolving child protection cases. They successfully resolved some or all the issues in 85 percent of those cases, Fabe said.

The Anchorage District Court also has a small program using volunteer mediators from the business community to resolve small claims cases. Last year they mediated about 200 cases, successfully resolving between 60 and 70 percent of them, Fabe said.

The court system also has several ''therapeutic court'' projects that generally focus on repeat offenders whose behavior is affected by drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness.

''Although these courts are sometimes called therapeutic courts, they operate on a model which actually requires much more commitment and work by an offender than the traditional model,'' Fabe said.

Individual plans are created for offenders, who must meet requirements involving treatment, monitoring, drug testing, school, work and so forth.

Such projects include a misdemeanor mental health court and a felony drug court in Anchorage, drunken driving courts in Anchorage and Bethel and misdemeanor alcohol courts in Juneau and Anchorage.

The newest court based on the therapeutic model is one in Anchorage involving parents in child protection cases, Fabe said.

The programs have been patched together with legislative funding, grants and community resources, Fabe said, adding the court system hopes the Legislature will continue to fund such programs.

She said the court system will also be seeking funding this year to improve courthouse security. Only a few courthouses in Alaska have even rudimentary weapons-screening systems, Fabe said.

Even before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the courts were seeing an increase in dangerous incidents in courthouses, she said, mainly from people involved in divorce, child custody or domestic violence cases.

''We are fortunate that we haven't seen a fatal incident here, but we have experienced some scary close calls -- and security experts tell us that it may only be a matter of time, if more protective safeguards are not put in place,'' Fabe said.

The court is asking the Legislature for $1.1 million in the capital budget for court security projects and $150,000 in the operating budget.

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