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Juab County will be the first to benefit from a state-funded commission created to tackle problems with Utah's public-defender system.
The Indigent Defense Commission on Monday discussed its first proposed grant seeking a portion of the $1.5 million in funding set aside by state lawmakers during the 2016 Legislature.
County officials sought more than $180,000 to secure a contract with neighboring Utah County's nonprofit public-defender association. They would then cease their previous methods of hiring private attorneys to accept flat-fee contracts to provide representation to those who can't afford it. In their application, Juab County officials wrote that they need more separation between the public defender and the county's executive branch in order to "provide more independence" and an environment that will allow defense attorneys to vigorously defend their clients. They also cited the need for more oversight of the county's public defenders, the need for better communication between the lawyers and the clients and the need for better data gathering and reporting.
But the commission members quickly ran into a snag during Monday's meeting: Juab County and most other rural counties have traditionally lumped adult and juvenile cases into the same public-defender contract. The law passed by legislators earlier this year, however, only covers indigent adults who are facing possible jail time.
Juab County reported 115 juvenile court cases filed in 2016 a cost of over $72,000.
The commission ultimately voted to approve grant funding of more than $110,000, with a provision allowing the county to seek the additional $72,000 if state legislators amend the law this year to include juvenile court cases. The "counteroffer" of funding will now need to be accepted by the county before it is given the money.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who sponsored the initial legislation, said Monday that he will ask his colleagues to change the wording of the law to include public defenders for juvenile defendants. This change would allow the commission to avoid similar problems for future applicants, the board said.
Juab County officials filled out a "critical needs" grant application because their contracted public defender retires in January and there is no one hired to take on his case load. There are no other critical-needs applications filed, according to Joanna Landau, Indigent Defense Commission executive director. There has been some interest, Landau said, from Ogden officials seeking funding for their justice court and Davis County seeking aid for its public defenders.
As the commission starts doling out the $1.5 million in funding to counties most in need, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, meanwhile, has earmarked an additional $1.5 million in indigent-defense funding in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2018.
Commission Chairman Michael Zimmerman called the additional funding a "significant step" toward the state's responsibility to provide attorneys to defendants who can't afford them.
"The governor's additional proposal of $1.5 million will be a significant boost to the commission's grant program to help indigent-defense providers discharge their constitutional responsibilities at the highest levels," Zimmerman said in a prepared statement. "The commission hopes that the Legislature will see the wisdom of Gov. Herbert's proposal."
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 had no state oversight to guide their efforts in meeting the Sixth Amendment obligation.
Each county differs in how it handles that responsibility. In Salt Lake and Utah counties, a nonprofit public-defender association provides services, while other counties rely on contracts with public defenders or private attorneys.
The commission is a result of four years of study by a state task force, which included hiring the Sixth Amendment Center to review the way the accused are being represented in Utah.
Last year, the center released a report that found many flaws in the system. One of those flaws is in justice courts, where people often connect with the court system for the first time and where more than half of defendants are not provided legal representation. The report also found that in district courts, where more people are using public defenders, "systemic deficiencies" prevent those attorneys from effectively advocating for their clients. Those issues include flat-fee public-defense contracts, which lead to attorneys being overworked and gives them little financial incentive to take cases to trial or put much work into the cases, as well as county attorneys who are advising commissioners on whom to give the public-defender contracts to essentially picking their opponent in court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah filed a lawsuit against the state in 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.