No quick fixes expected for Northern Utah public defender issues

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A new state commission has begun spending money to ensure that criminal defendants receive constitutionally guaranteed legal representation, but it will be some time before Northern Utah counties see any of the action.

“In Weber County there is a patchwork system” for providing indigent defense, said Joanna Landau, director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, which was created by the 2016 Utah State Legislature.

“So you have a big question mark on what to do in Ogden,” she said, adding that Northern Utah as a whole “is one of the more complex areas of the state” because of its variety of public defense structures.

The commission received $1.5 million this year to begin setting up grant projects to attack deficiencies in public defender systems around the state. On Wednesday, the commission approved a $140,000 pilot project that will allow Juab County to receive defender services under contract from the larger Utah County public defender operation.

In 2015, a Sixth Amendment Center study that outlined systemic problems preventing many low-income criminal suspects in Utah from receiving adequate representation singled out the Utah County and Salt Lake County operations as among the best in the state.

Landau called the Juab initiative is “a great pilot project” that is hoped will provide an early success story. The commission needs to begin collecting data so further judgments can be made to back additional projects.

In the Ogden area, data collection will be crucial, she said, adding that officials will need to be “figuring out where they’re at with the justice courts, who’s representing who in what courts …”

“If we start piecemealing solutions there we would just exacerbate the patchwork,” Landau said.

In Weber and other areas “we know there’s need, critical needs, for the perfect pilot project,” but data reporting and analysis of caseloads must be done, Landau said.

“Some caseloads need to be evaluated where they have never been done before,” she said.

Utah and Salt Lake counties have distinct public defender offices. Weber County contracts with a public defender coordinator, who helps arrange workloads of the other attorneys under contract to provide indigent defense.

In Davis County, the public defender director is a county employee.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said in a recent email interview he’s “actively and openly supportive of … increasing the compensation and resources for the public defender system in Utah. It has to happen. Utah absolutely does need to take more seriously its responsibility and role as a state in beefing up the public defender system … and not just dumping it on the counties.”

At the same time, Rawlings said, county attorney staffs are not flush with extra attorneys — “prosecutors are overworked and underpaid dramatically.”

“I used to be a public defender for five years — I do know the difference. I made far more money then when adding in the private practice (like criminal, divorce, personal injury, employment) and worked far less than I do now,” Rawlings said.

Landau said the state commission is working with the Utah League of Cities and Towns and the Utah Association of Counties so solutions to public defense systems’ structural and funding problems can be alleviated.

“It’s such a many-headed hydra,” she said. “Hopefully it’s a long-term effort — I don’t think it can be anything else. It’s a constitutional obligation that’s never been attended to.”

Gov. Gary Herbert has recommended another $1.5 million in one-time funding for the 2018 fiscal year.

“It’s a paltry, paltry amount relative to the state budget but it is not nothing,” Landau said. “We need to start somewhere and start spending it carefully to make ourselves relevant.”

She said the next grant projects may involve Millard and Tooele counties, leveraging services of the nearby Utah and Salt Lake county defenders. But nothing has been decided. And nothing north of Salt Lake County is yet contemplated by the commission, she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union in June filed a class action suit against the state in federal court, representing several defendants still jailed pending prosecution without legal representation.

The suit accuses counties and cities of concentrating on cost control, refusing to budget for necessary public defenders and failing to adequately provide for expert witnesses, investigators and other support services.

In court papers filed Dec. 15, The ACLU argued against delays that have marked the case so far. The Utah Attorney General’s Office has said the case should be delayed while an appeal on a similar case is heard in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

“The constitutional defects permeating the indigent defense system are ongoing and unrelenting,” the ACLU’s document said. “No meaningful remedy is in sight. To delay (the suit) is to deny a timely determination of the constitutionality of the system. Every day, new indigent defendants are denied their individual rights under the United States and Utah constitutions.”

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