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Juvenile defendants may soon benefit from a state-funded commission created last year to tackle problems with Utah's public-defender system.
A bill introduced this week would amend a legislation enacted last year that created the Indigent Defense Commission, which distributes state funds and oversees indigent defense services statewide. But bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the bill he passed a year ago did not include juvenile defendants. This meant the commission could only grant money to counties for use in providing attorneys to those charged in adult court, who can't afford their own attorneys and face the possibility of jail time.
SB134 proposes that the commission be expanded to include juvenile defense, and also proposes an additional $150,000 a year to hire a staffer who has experience in juvenile crimes.
Joanna Landau, the executive director of the commission, said Wednesday that excluding juvenile cases from the commission caused a snag in their first grant application, and would likely continue to do so.
Juab County officials the first to apply a portion of the $1.5 million in funding set aside state lawmakers during the 2016 Legislature have traditionally lumped adult and juvenile cases into the same public-defender contract. And most every other rural counties in Utah does the same, Landeau told members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee on Wednesday.
To solve the problem, Landeau said, the commission granted funding that would help Juab County pay for its adult public defense, while the county doled out the funds for their juvenile cases.
"We could not grant them money for juvenile defense," she said. "… With this amendment, we would not have to make that arbitrary distinction on how we would grant money."
With the help of the state money, Juab County officials were able to cease a flat-fee contract with private defense attorneys and the county now partners with the Utah County's nonprofit public-defender association.
It has only been a month since they made that change, but Juab County Attorney Jared Eldridge told the committee Wednesday that they've already seen dramatic improvements to how public defenders represent those in the county who can't afford an attorney.
"You may be surprised that a prosecutor is here in support," Eldridge said. "But honestly, as a prosecutor, we find that when there is good, competent defense counsel, it makes our job easier in some ways. And that's certainly been the case over the last month."
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, applauded the efforts of Weiler and the commission in bringing public defenders to Utahns who, under the law, are entitled to representation.
"Last year, I called this the most important bill that nobody is paying attention to," he said. "And it still is."
The Senate committee unanimously advanced the bill on Wednesday, and it now advances to consideration of the full Senate.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that defendants facing possible jail time are entitled to counsel, even if they can't afford it. Utah and Pennsylvania are the two states in the nation that delegate this responsibility to counties, which have previously had no state oversight to guide their efforts in meeting the Sixth Amendment obligation.
The Sixth Amendment Center found in a 2015 report that Utah's indigent-defense system had many flaws, including that public defenders have no incentive to take cases to trial or put more work into their cases because of flat-fee contracts. Many Utahns were not provided legal representation in the justice courts, the center found, and in district court, "systemic deficiencies" prevented public defenders from effectively advocating for their clients.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah filed a lawsuit against the state last June, saying legislators' actions in creating the commission was not enough to meet the constitutional requirement. The lawsuit is pending in federal court as the ACLU seeks class-action status.