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Alaska Supreme Court Resolves Jail Funding Fight

The Alaska Supreme Court held that the State's duty to house prisoners in the Kotzebue Regional Jail ceased when the contract between the City and State expired, but it owed a continuing duty to transport prisoners to court.

"Built in 1988, the Kotzebue Regional Jail was operated by the City of Kotzebue under contract with the state as part of its community jail program for many years; the jail serves an area of approximately 35,000 square miles in the northwest region of Alaska."

The jail's full operating costs were not covered by the state contract, forcing the city to subsidize the facility.

After being denied additional state funding, on June 6, 2003, the City informed the Department of Corrections (DOC) that it intended to close the jail when the contract expired at the end of the month.

On June 18, 2003, DOC Commissioner Marc Antrim advised Kotzebue City Manager Herman Reich that if the city closed the jail. "It would have to 'make arrangements to deliver offenders to a Department of Corrections facility.'” The nearest facility was in Nome, which is not connected to Kotzebue by road. Antrim also asserted that "the department was 'not responsible for an offender at the time of arrest' and was not obligated to take custody of a prisoner until a booking officer at a state correctional facility signed a remand slip accepting custody.”

On June 19, 2003, the Kotzebue City Council barred Reich "from renewing the jail's contract" and directed him to close the jail at midnight June 30, 2003, "unless the state provided 'full funding' for the next fiscal year beginning July 1."

On June 24, 2003, Reich informed Antrim that he believed that under state law DOC and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) were responsible for pre- and post-arraignment transportation of state-charged prisoners.

At midnight on June 30, 2003, the City closed the empty jail. But it was forced to reopen the jail on July 2, 2003, to house a state-charged offender, because Alaska State Troopers (ASP) "refused to take custody of the prisoner," arguing "that their obligation toward prisoners did not begin until after arraignment."

The City and DOC continued jail funding discussions. On July 18, 2003, City Attorney Joseph Evans informed Antrim that the City Council refused to accept a $589,000 jail operating budget for fiscal year 2004. Evans begged DOC and DPS "to re-examine their positions declining to take responsibility for state-charged prisoners from arrest to arraignment." On July 18, 2003, DOC Deputy Director Mike Addington reported that DOC "lacked 'the resources to provide the City of Kotzebue with the additional funds to run the jail.'"

On July 22, 2003, the City sued the State, seeking: a declaration that DOC and DPS were responsible for housing and transporting pre-arraigned prisoners arrested by the city; an injunction ordering DOC & DPS to take custody of, and transport, such prisoners; and reimbursement for transportation and jail operation costs and expenses.

On October 10, 2003, AST inexplicably resumed transporting prisoners from the jail to the Kotzebue courthouse for arraignment. "Troopers . . . also began using temporary holding cells, or 'cages,' to house" pre- and post-arraignment prisoners. DPS exclusively managed the holding cells, which "were intended to hold prisoners for only a few hours until they could be transported to correctional facilities in Nome."

Between July 2003 and October 2004, the Kotzebue Jail continued to house state-charged prisoners until their arraignments. "Monthly arrest totals ranged from a low of seventeen in March 2004 to a high of fifty-two in September 2004."

On August 30, 2004, the superior court ruled in favor of the city on the prisoner-custody issue, holding that DOC "had a duty to care for prisoners before their arraignment in locations where a state correctional facility existed." The court determined that the "cages" were a correctional facility because the state accepted custody and held prisoners in the cages.

Finding that "the city had no viable claim for housing expenses during the period between the jail's initial closure and the opening of the cages," the court limited reimbursement of jail costs to the time after the cages were opened.

The court also found that after AST installed the cages, DPS "had an independent duty to transport Kotzebue prisoners to court for arraignment." As such, the city was awarded reimbursement of arraignment transportation costs between the opening date of the cages and October 10, 2003 -- when AST "voluntarily resumed transporting all Kotzebue prisoners to court."

The state moved for reconsideration because the court mistakenly believed that DOC operated the AST cages. In fact, DOC had no involvement in the cage operation and argued, therefore, that they did not qualify as correctional facilities.

The court granted reconsideration, holding that because the cages were not correctional facilities, the city was not entitled to reimbursement "for housing prisoners at the Kotzebue jail even after the cages opened." It also broadened its original transportation cost ruling and ordered that the city be reimbursed for all transportation costs incurred from July 1, 2003 until October 10, 2003.

Approximately six months after the superior court's ruling, the City and State reached a new prospective jail funding agreement in the spring of 2005.

On August 31, 2007, the Alaska Supreme Court held that the city was entitled to housing reimbursement costs from July 1, 2003 until "the Kotzebue jail ceased to be a 'correctional facility' as of July l 8, 2003."

On the issue of DPS's responsibility to reimburse the City for prisoner transportation costs, the Court noted that "the city prevailed below in establishing the department's duty to transport prisoners within Kotzebue; the superior court's ruling on the point is undisputed; and, as the law of the case, that ruling will be binding on the parties in their future handling of prisoners."

Finally, the Court held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in ordering the city to pay DOC $4,400 in attorney's fees. See: City of Kotzebue v. State of Alaska, 166 P. 3d 37 (Alaska: Supreme Court, 2007).

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Related legal case

City of Kotzebue v. State of Alaska