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We commend the Salt Lake Tribune for Robert Gehrke's recent article about Utah's indigent defense system. The article discussed how Utah is failing to meet its Sixth Amendment obligation to provide legal counsel to defendants who aren't able to afford a private attorney – and how this failure exposes the state to an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit.

Gehrke captured well the problem's urgency: while reform advocates await the release of a report from the renowned Sixth Amendment Center, Utahns' lives continue to be ruined by our unconstitutional and unbalanced system.

Gehrke mentioned Harry Miller, a man who spent four years behind bars for an aggravated robbery he did not commit. At the time of the crime, Miller was in Louisiana, receiving treatment for a stroke. Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, Miller was eventually exonerated — but only after he had lost part of his life to incarceration.

Sue McAley's life also has been torn apart by the system. She might have avoided serious financial stress, and time in jail, if she could have afforded a private attorney. Convicted in justice court of shoplifting — she left a store with a $1.45 item in her pocket — McAley received a nearly $700 fine.

She explained that the accidental theft was a result of memory problems, caused by recent medication adjustments. The court wouldn't consider a letter from her therapist. McAley asked to perform community service instead, as she was unemployed and recovering from breast cancer. The court insisted she pay. Her overworked public defender had neither the time nor resources time to mount an effective defense.

Months later, a warrant was issued for McAley's arrest. She spent a weekend in jail, waiting to see a judge, because she couldn't make timely payments on her fine.

These stories aren't unique to Utah. Unfortunately, there are Harry Millers and Sue McAleys all over the nation. We've watched other states struggle with severely inadequate public defense. We've learned a lot from their experimentations and failures, as they have litigated and legislated their way through public defense delivery solutions.

For example, in Michigan, legislation in 2013 finally established a statewide indigent defense commission. But two years later, the commission has yet to collect any data or establish any standards that will lead, presumably, to an improved system. Aside from paying for commission staff, Michigan has not yet actually increased funding for public defense.

Similarly, Idaho, in 2014 finally passed legislation that formed a state-level indigent defense commission but did little else. This summer, the ACLU of Idaho sued, asserting that the implementation of statutory changes was simply too slow to provide relief for the state's failed system.

People like Harry Miller and Sue McAley can't wait any longer for Utah to fulfill its constitutional obligations — obligations that have been clear for more than 50 years. Failing their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel meant not just temporary loss of liberty, but complete chaos in their lives – not to mention substantial and avoidable financial costs for both the county and the state. Their situations could have been prevented if they had been afforded properly resourced, trained and funded attorneys.

Utah needs aggressive reform at both the state and county levels, undertaken immediately and supported by significant state funding. Any legislative proposal must include concrete directives for counties, as well as funding to accomplish those directives.

Though there must be a state-level mechanism to administer and oversee implementation, a statute that does nothing more than create a commission tasked with solving the problem at some point in the future will not be enough.

After plenty of years studying the problem, it is now time for a real solution.

Marina Lowe is legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah. John Mejia is the organization's legal director.