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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It is very much to the credit of the Utah judicial system that court administrators are not just sitting around waiting to be sued over the deficiencies in our state's approach to providing defense attorneys for people who cannot afford to pay for their own, but gathering information about the best way to improve the system.

And it is very much to the credit of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers that those two groups stand ready to sue the state if those efforts fall short.

Because spending money to help people who are not only poor, but also stand accused of crimes, is not always something the Utah political system would be eager to do without the incentive of a lawsuit breathing down its neck.

The issue is that Utah, unlike 48 other states, neither funds nor supervises each county's process for providing the constitutional right of appointed counsel for poor defendants. The likelihood that such a system will be wildly inconsistent is something the courts say they take seriously — seriously enough to engage the services of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center to audit the existing system and make recommendations for improvements.

No system of justice worthy of the name would ever leave defendants in criminal cases without not just competent, but skilled and aggressive, legal representation. The possibility — no, the certainty — that unlucky, unappealing, unconnected and underrepresented people would be railroaded into prison just so the system could close a case, is not acceptable.

And it is not just the poor who suffer. A system of justice that is not held to the highest standard — that does not provide all defendants with the means to confront witnesses, challenge evidence, demand all the protections of law that automatically go to the rich — cannot be trusted by anyone.

Such a system cannot help but take the easy way out. The search, all too often, won't end with the real perpetrator, but with the most convenient fall guy. That will leave real criminals on the street, free to strike again, while unfortunate people are taken from their homes and children, increasing social strife and unnecessarily burdening the taxpayers.

There must be general acceptance, in all corners of society, that our criminal justice system plays no favorites and leaves no defendant tactically unarmed. Otherwise, no one trusts the system, victims do not report crimes, witnesses do not come forward and police are seen, rightly or wrongly, as just another street gang.

The findings of this study must be seriously considered, for justice must be done. Even if it is expensive.

The poor must be defended
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