Fault Lines
19 June 2017

No Money For Indigent Defense In Utah, But $2M For A Study Of It

June 23, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The ACLU of Utah and law firm Holland & Hart have filed a class-action lawsuit against the State of Utah, claiming that its public defender system is underfunded, overburdened, inconsistent and generally inadequate. The ACLU claims it is suing Utah for “failing to meet its Sixth Amendment obligations under the U.S. Constitution.”

Speaking at a recent press conference, Karen McCreary, outgoing executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, was adamant that patience isn’t going to fix the problem.

We cannot have a criminal justice system with any integrity if Utahns are not ensured vigorous legal representation when facing the power of the state. There must be a time where we say, we need to move forward, we need to really address this to make sure that the Sixth Amendment guarantees are real in our state.

John Harrington of Holland & Hart did not mince words, “we are in the dark ages when it comes to public defenders in the State of Utah.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit comes eight months after the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center issued a scathing report that alleged that the majority of indigent defendants facing misdemeanor charges never even meet with a lawyer in Utah, because legal representation is not mandatory if a defendant does not face jail time if convicted. However, plea deals often carry the potential for jail time if a defendant fails to meet the terms of the agreement. These terms often include the payment of steep fines or expensive treatment for substance abuse that place an onerous burden on low-income defendants. For indigent defendants accused of felonies, the report found that that they are assigned lawyers but public defenders don’t have enough time to mount an adequate defense.

The class-action lawsuit names six plaintiffs from Cache, Tooele, Carbon counties who currently face charges that could result in incarceration. The ACLU says the men have barely had any contact with the public defenders that were assigned to them by the Court.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office issued a statement calling the lawsuit “costly and potentially counterproductive.”

Utah Attorney General’s chief federal deputy and general counsel Parker Douglas pointed out that Utah has been taking steps in the right direction, citing a move by the Legislature earlier this year to form of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, setting aside $2 million to create a new state commission to study indigent defense systems and hand out grants to local governments.

To ask a judge to review these measures now, before any opportunity to see the results of that effort, is premature and will require a single judge to review the collective efforts of the many interested stakeholders who have spent thousands of hours addressing the same issues.

Then again, that’s $2 million that might have been used for indigent defense rather than a committee to study indigent defense.

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  • Indigent Defense: Why Aren’t We Talking About It?
    24 June 2016 at 9:26 am - Reply

    […] representation due to a “conflict of interest.”  In a perfect world, that would see an end to appropriating millions for “studies” on indigent defense rather than actually funding indigent […]