This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
On June 21, the ACLU of Utah filed suit asserting that the state of Utah has violated the rights of indigent defendants. While we agree in principle that, in many areas of Utah, indigent defense falls below constitutional standards, it is important to note that there are many able, professional, talented and dedicated public defenders throughout the state who work tirelessly and achieve wonderful results for their clients and communities.
The 2011 study by the ACLU referenced in the complaint highlighted many areas of dire need. However, that study looked at only nine almost exclusively small rural counties in Utah (Box Elder, Daggett, Duchesne, Iron, Kane, San Juan, Sevier, Uintah and Weber). These nine counties comprise only a small fraction of Utah's population and do not represent the entire picture of indigent defense in Utah. Indeed, Utah's two largest counties, Salt Lake and Utah, both have vibrant, full-time public defender offices that have excellent reputations.
Salt Lake County in particular has made indigent defense a priority for decades. Since 1965, the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association (LDA) has been providing indigent criminal defense services for the residents of Salt Lake County. Today, LDA employs 80 attorneys in felony, misdemeanor and appellate divisions and a full-time support staff of investigators, social workers, paralegals and legal secretaries. Through competitive hiring, rigorous training, institutional experience and support, LDA has some of the very best trial and appellate attorneys in the entire state. As recently acknowledged by the Sixth Amendment Center after an intensive study in Utah, LDA has a "well deserved reputation" for providing "excellent representation." See "The Right to Counsel in Utah: An Assessment of Trial-Level Indigent Defense Services."
Even during recent tough budgetary times, both the Salt Lake County Council and the Salt Lake County Mayor's Office have prioritized indigent defense and provided LDA with needed resources in an effort to ensure quality representation. Salt Lake County has known for decades what other governments are only just learning: that a well-funded and able public defender office is much more than a luxury it has become a necessity. A good public defender office does much more than just meet constitutional obligations; it provides many, sometimes unseen, benefits to the community. In addition to challenging the prosecution's case in trials and motions, LDA attorneys working with social workers are able to identify clients whose mental health and substance abuse issues have led them into the criminal justice system and are then able to find appropriate treatment. Funneling those clients into treatment rather than jail or prison protects families and ultimately reduces recidivism.
Having a public defender office with full-time attorneys with training, support and supervision has become the national standard, and the offices in both Utah and Salt Lake County can serve as models as the state of Utah begins to address this very difficult issue. The recent creation of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission is a good first step and given time and resources could have a positive impact on indigent defense in the State of Utah.
Patrick L. Anderson is Salt Lake Legal Defender Association executive director. Joan C. Watt is assistant director and chief appellate attorney, and Patrick Corum is assistant director.