State money will pay for public defenders to represent those arrested in Operation Rio Grande

The Indigent Defense Commission awarded $368,000 to Salt Lake County to pay for two new public defenders.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) UHP Troopers make an arrest on 400 west as law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City Monday August 14, 2017.

Utah’s Indigent Defense Commission will help foot the bill for additional public defenders needed for those arrested in Operation Rio Grande, the commission announced Friday.

Salt Lake County was awarded more than $368,000 to hire two new public defenders to represent those who have been charged with crimes as part of local and state officials’ efforts to reduce lawlessness around Salt Lake City’s downtown homeless shelter. The money will be reimbursed to the county quarterly over the next two years.

The Indigent Defense Commission (IDC) voted Wednesday to award the grant to the county. It is the second request for funds the commission has approved since it was formed during the 2016 legislative session to oversee public defense services in the state and dole out $1.5 million in state grants to help counties cover costs.

Since Operation Rio Grande began last month, law enforcement have made more than 1,000 arrests. The Salt Lake Legal Defender Association (LDA), which contracts with Salt Lake County to provide public defenders to those accused of crimes, estimates it will experience “significantly increased caseloads” as a result, according to a Friday IDC news release.

“An increase of this magnitude would require LDA attorneys to handle well more that the nationally recommended number of cases for public defenders,” the news release reads. “… IDC grant funds will help mitigate some of this increased workload by providing the two additional attorneys to absorb cases and allow all attorneys to give their cases the time and attention necessary to provide a constitutionally effective defense in each case.”

Richard Mauro, LDA’s executive director, told the commission on Wednesday that his office has seen an increase of cases this year, and expects that number to be even higher as prosecutors continue to file charges in connection to Operation Rio Grande. He estimated a 17 percent increase of cases in the next two years as a direct result of the operation.

Mauro said that in recent weeks, lawyers in his office have seen an increase of low-level drug cases being filed as felonies — or people being arrested for their third drug offense, which makes the charge a felony.

“We‘re seeing people that are being arrested for possession,” he said, ”or if they have more than 2 or 3 grams on their person, they’re being arrested for distribution charges.”

Mauro said another ”gigantic” workload has come in recent weeks because police have arrested people with warrants who were already LDA’s clients. Those cases now become active again, he said, and require attorneys to work on them.

Before approving Salt Lake County’s grant request this week, some members of the commission expressed frustration that funding for defense lawyers didn’t seem to be part of the discussion when officials drafted the plans for Operation Rio Grande.

“It is worth noting, I think, that all of these expenses were front-loaded, and then the afterthought of defense came,” said Pamela Vickrey, executive director for Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, which provides attorneys for indigent youths.

During the Wednesday meeting, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, voiced his support for funding for the county, saying that while the commission should place an emphasis on supporting rural areas, it should be noted that Salt Lake County has become a magnet for homeless people because of the services offered.

“I do think we’re serving a critical need of the state, a very vulnerable population,” he said.

Anyone who is charged with a crime that includes the possibility of jail time — in Utah, that’s anything above an infraction — is entitled to an attorney, even if they can’t afford one. 

Utah is one of two states in the nation that delegates that responsibility to individual counties and cities. There had previously been no state oversight on how indigent Utahns were being represented in court until the commission was formed in 2016 after four years of study by a state task force.

Earlier this year, IDC granted money to Juab County so it could hire the Utah County Public Defender Association — the only other non-profit public defender organization in Utah besides Salt Lake County — to handle its cases.