This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Legislators have taken an important step in reforming Utah's system for providing attorneys to accused criminals who can't afford them, even if they came up short on paying for it.
Senate Bill 155, which awaits the governor's signature, brings statewide oversight to Utah's county-by-county patchwork of public defenders. As one of only two states to leave indigent-defense funding to counties, Utah has been falling behind on its constitutional responsibility under the Sixth Amendment to provide a fair legal system.
Left on their own, Salt Lake and Utah counties use a non-profit public defender association, but the smaller counties have a variety of contracts with attorneys. Some of those are flat-rate contracts that give the defenders large caseloads and little incentive to fully represent their clients.
A state task force looking at the issue hired the independent Sixth Amendment Center to assess Utah's situation, and the center found, among other things, that 65 percent of indigent criminal defendants in the justice court system were never even provided legal counsel. And in some cases, prosecutors are meeting with the defendants to make plea deals before they've seen an attorney, a clear constitutional violation.
The task force made recommendations that became the basis of SB155. First and foremost, the bill creates a statewide Indigent Defense Commission to establish standards and provide training and money to the counties. Those standards would address the flat-rate contracts and other shortcomings.
The work isn't done. In fact, this progress could go for naught if more money isn't found. The Legislature only committed $2 million to this, while the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says it would take more like $8 million to $10 million to bring Utah up to legal standards.
That gap could trigger lawsuits. One proposed class-action suit has already been filed in Washington County, and the American Civil Liberties Union, a likely source of such suits, has already made clear that more money is needed. A successful lawsuit could unravel convictions, ultimately costing the state much more.
Politicians are tempted to treat this as a political issue, and there likely never will be a large bloc of voters who push their elected leaders to provide better legal representation for accused criminals. But it is the Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, that sets this standard, not politics.
SB155's sponsor, Sen. Todd Weiler, knows this, and he admits he took the best deal he could get this year from fellow legislators. He promises to be back next year for more money.
The governor should sign this bill, but the hunt for money may not wait a year. Through whatever means, the state should find more funding for public defenders. If they don't, they could end up paying even more lawyers even more money later.