SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah could be vulnerable to a lawsuit for falling short on its role to provide legal defense for poor people, according to two legal watchdog groups.
Utah is one of only two states that does not fund or provide oversight for its system to supply defense attorneys to those who can't afford them.
That system leaves too few lawyers to represent too many defendants, said the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers.
A state courts committee is set to review and make recommendations to Utah's system, which leaves it up to counties to set up and pay for public defenders, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
But if Utah makes no changes to its patchwork system, the ACLU and NACDL could sue the state for violating the U.S. Constitution.
"We're actively monitoring the situation," said John Mejia, legal director for the ACLU of Utah. "But we're encouraged that the council has a committee looking into this issue."
The Utah Judicial Council, which sets policy for state courts, has set up a committee that will gather data on Utah's system starting this June. Committee members said they hope to issue their findings and recommendations within a year.
"We all agree there are problems, but there's no clear consent about exactly what those problems look like," said Assistant Courts Administrator Rick Schwermer, a committee member. "We need data. We need information about what's really going on out there in the courtrooms, in the counties."
The Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit group that monitors public defense systems, has been tasked with helping Utah gather data.
Nationwide, about 80 percent of criminal defendants rely on public defenders, according to the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association,
Utah is one of 26 states that leave it to counties to administer indigent defense. Out of those 26, only Utah and Pennsylvania don't have any statewide standards, said Sixth Amendment Center Director David Carroll.
That leaves a "disastrously inconsistent system" said Aric Cramer, a Washington County criminal defense lawyer and member of the NACDL board of directors.
While some counties, such as Salt Lake and Utah, have public defender offices, most of Utah's 29 counties award contracts to private attorneys to represent criminal defendants. The attorneys are not limited to how many clients they take on and their rate is fixed.
That system leaves public defenders underpaid, overworked and without any training requirements, which fails to protect the constitutional rights of the poor to an adequate defense, the ACLU said.
"I think county officials and local government officials really do want to do what's right and follow the Constitution," said Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense. "However, because most of them are not attorneys and most of them do not understand the court process, they lack understanding of what is needed to provide an adequate defense."
Once Utah collects data on its system, the state could implement changes such as setting up a statewide public defense commission, electing public defense attorneys or establishing local or regional boards to oversee the system.
"There's no cookie-cutter model that you can pull off the shelf and instantly make things work," Carroll said.