One thing that any self-respecting bunch of Don't Tread On Me Utahns should be concerned about is the prospect of being arrested, cuffed and dragged into court without so much as a marginally competent attorney on hand to defend you.
But, according to a recent review by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, that threat is all too real in this state.
The report, assembled from information obtained from public records act requests, was developed with assistance from the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law Civil Rights Clinic. It concludes that Utah, and any of its citizens who might find themselves staring down the barrel of a criminal indictment, are ill-served by the fact that we are one of only two states that expects individual counties to take care of the establishment and funding of the required public defender system for defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers.
The lack of state oversight or funding means the quality of public defenders across the state is markedly uneven. The job often goes to rookie lawyers, or to attorneys who are paid very little for their efforts. Some public defender contracts are awarded based on advice from local prosecutors, who might have some incentive to steer the business to someone they were confident they could beat in court nine times out of 10.
It has been nearly 50 years since the United States Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal justice under law are meaningless if the accused in a criminal trial lacks the assistance of competent counsel for his or her defense.
And even if one is not concerned with such constitutional niceties, or has enough money to hire their own gol-durn lawyer, thank you very much, there are costs associated with being this cheap.
Inadequate, incompetent or singularly dedicated but heavily overworked defense attorneys make mistakes. Mistakes by defense attorneys not only could send the wrong people to jail, they stop the police from looking for the right people, who then commit more crimes. And it catches up with everyone when bad lawyering at the trial level leads to more appeals, more reversals, more re-trials, all of which subvert the cause of justice and try the taxpayers' patience.
The system wouldn't work as well as it does if we didn't have many highly dedicated attorneys working in the criminal justice system, both as prosecutors and defense lawyers. But it can hardly be called justice if one side has a lot more money, expertise and manpower than the other.