Youths in Utah may soon have the assurance that they will be offered a public defender if they find themselves in trouble with the law.
SB32 requires the appointment of public defenders for all youths who can’t afford one. Bill sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said current law has allowed inconsistency throughout the state, leaving children as young as 8 years old to argue on their own behalf in juvenile courtrooms.
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 the defendant is poor. It’s a constitutional right that is supposed to extend to young people, as well. In Utah, the law was changed a few years ago to require public defenders for youths facing felony charges, but that same requirement was not extended to lower-level crimes.
Weiler’s bill ensures even juveniles accused of misdemeanor crimes will get a public defender. That attorney will also be required to be present at all court hearings, including detention hearings for youths or review hearings.
The measure would put into place a presumption that young people are indigent, and their parents’ income would not be taken into account when assessing their ability to pay for an attorney.
It can become a conflict, Weiler said, if a young person does not qualify for an attorney and his or her parents refuse to pay for one — forcing young people to navigate the system without help.
“The parents might say, ‘We’re not hiring you an attorney; you have to deal with it,’” he said. “A child’s constitutional rights are not contingent on what the parents’ disciplinary methods are.”
The bill also allows a juvenile court judge to order parents to pay for a public defender.
Weiler's bill got a final vote on Wednesday, and now moves to Gov. Gary Herbert for his consideration.
Those who were critical of the bill expressed concern about how much it will cost to provide attorneys to all youth. Others worried that requiring public defenders to be at routine review hearings is not a good use of that attorney's time.
“We’re providing a lawyer to every juvenile offender, even though it’s not required by the Constitution,” Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, argued Wednesday on the House floor. “We’re also forcing lawyers on parents who are fully capable of paying for their own lawyer. We really have the state stepping between the juvenile and the parents. It’s close to a nanny-state law.”
Rep. V. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, spoke in support of the bill, saying this change was first requested two years ago as part of a sweeping juvenile justice reform bill he sponsored that focused on keeping kids out of the court system for minor offenses. But the public defender requirement was eventually dropped as part of a compromise with county officials concerned about the cost, Snow said.
Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, is a Murray City prosecutor, and said having public defenders in the courtroom makes the justice system work better.
“This is an absolutely essential bill,” he said. “Juveniles are incredibly vulnerable. They need representation. And this gets it to them.”