Utah's poor devastated by broken public defense system

Wednesday , October 28, 2015 - 11:15 AM2 comments

Standard-Examiner staff

Most low-income people charged with misdemeanors in Utah never see a lawyer, and many of the state’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid, according to a new report commissioned by the state.

According to the Associated Press, Utah and Pennsylvania are the only states where local governments fund all indigent defense services, without money from the state or oversight to ensure cases are handled properly.

That means rural and poor counties struggle to pay for attorneys for people who can’t afford them, said David Carroll, executive director of the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center, which completed the report. He said Utah’s system is broken.

Attorney Michael Studebaker has tried to address concerns over Utah’s public defender system through federal courts, 

“What we learned from the report is what we already knew which is that in Weber County and Ogden it is so broken and pathetic that it might as well not exist,” Studebaker said. “If you’re a poor person accused of a crime in Weber County, then it sucks to be you.”

Studebaker drew from the disparities between public defenders’ and prosecutors’ finances and resources. According to Studebaker, public defenders in Weber County have one investigator that works 3/4-time, but the Weber County Attorney’s Office has two full-time investigators “and all the law enforcement officers they need.”

Public defenders contract with the county on a fixed amount of income. In one rural justice court in Utah, a public defender is paid $600 a month to handle all indigent cases, according to the Associated Press.

In 2013, that lawyer had about 20 cases a month, for an average payment of $30 a case — whether it went to trial or was resolved with a plea deal. That produces a monetary incentive to get cases off the books quickly, the report said. 

The justice court was not identified. The report was commissioned and paid for by Utah State Courts, and the Sixth Amendment Center agreed to leave some identifying details out.

Weber County’s approved budget for 2015 appropriates $1.47 million for public defenders and receives $150,000 as revenue from indigent fees. Total expenditures approved for Weber County criminal attorneys, however, is set at $2.68 million.

“Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that you’re entitled to an effective prosecution,” Studebaker said. “It does say, however, that you’re entitled to have a defense.”

Defendants who do not face jail time under the offense for which they are charged are not entitled to a public defender since the Gideon v. Wainwright decision in 1963 by the U.S. Supreme Court. This only affects those charged with misdemeanors, although some misdemeanor cases have jail time on the table and require public defense for the indigent.

Misdemeanor convictions are potentially devastating because they can mean losing federal housing aid, access to student loans or deportation for those in the country illegally.

In one case, a woman who pleaded guilty to writing a bad check was sent to jail at her request because she didn’t have a job and couldn’t afford the fines and restitution of more than $1,300, the report said. She didn’t have a lawyer and the charge didn’t require jail time.

Defendants are “making decisions that have huge impacts on their lives without anything to go on,” Carroll said.

While people accused of more serious felony crimes are getting lawyers in Utah, the lack of statewide oversight in misdemeanor cases can leave public defenders without enough time to dedicate to each case, the report said.

Utah’s Judicial Council, a group that represents the state court system, reviewed the report Monday and another report from a council subcommittee that’s been studying the issue since 2011.

The subcommittee report recommends Utah create a statewide indigent defense commission to set standards and offer training and money to local governments. It also suggests municipalities revamp their contracts with public defenders.

“I don’t have any faith that they will change anything...the fact is that county commissioners don’t want to have to fund indigent defense,” Studebaker said. “It is not attractive to voters to fund a poor person accused of a crime.”

State Sen. Todd Weiler, who is on the subcommittee, said he plans legislation next year to address problems with the system. Weiler said the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has been patient as the state studied the issue, but if lawmakers don’t enact some reforms in 2016, the organization could follow through on its threat to sue Utah.

The ACLU said in a statement Monday that the report’s recommendations are not enough.

Spokeswoman Anna Brower said a lawsuit is on the table and “will likely be needed to initiate true reform” if lawmakers don’t make substantial changes next year. A law firm has begun working with the group and they have started drafting a complaint, she said.

Associated Press reporters Lindsay Whitehurst and Michelle L. Price contributed to this article.

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