How a new law changed what happens in Utah courts when kids get in trouble

Many young people had previously had waived their right to an attorney.

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool photo) Utah youths who find themselves in trouble with law are now consistently getting access to legal help, after a law change in 2019 that required young people access to attorneys. In this photo, a 16-year-old Utah boy is led into a Davis County courtroom in 2014.

Young people in Utah who find themselves in trouble with the law are now consistently getting access to legal help — something that wasn’t happening just a few years ago.

A new report released Wednesday from the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children says a change in the law and better data collection shows that kids are far more likely to get their constitutionally protected right to legal representation.

Nearly every youth had legal representation in more than 250 proceedings observed by Voices for Utah Children in a four-month period starting in October 2020. That wasn’t happening in 2018, when observers with the nonprofit found that young people were unrepresented in about one-third of proceedings.

In many of those cases, the young person was waiving their right to an attorney.

“It was very troubling that they were turning down the attorney without knowing why it was important,” said Anna Thomas, a policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children.

That meant there was no attorney to advocate for them, to explain the details of a plea offer, how a trial would work or how court proceedings could impact their future.

The nonprofit found kids were waiving attorneys either because they wanted to get the court proceedings over with, or because they wanted to take responsibility for what they did. In some cases parents would pressure a child to move forward without an attorney, because they were upset that their child broke the law.

But that changed in 2019, when Utah legislators passed a bill that required public defenders to be appointed to all youths who can’t afford one. Voices for Utah Childrens’ report said this change made a critical difference.

“We believe that by creating a statutory presumption of indigency, Utah has removed the primary barrier to young people fully realizing their right to legal counsel,” the report reads.

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.

There was one big difference between the court hearings observed in 2018 and those in 2020: The 2020 hearings were all held through a video feed because of the pandemic.

The nonprofit said it wasn’t sure if that equated to attorneys making it to court more often, but encouraged the courts to keep online proceedings as an option to remove barriers for kids in rural areas where the nearest courthouse could be hours away.

The report did not assess whether the defense attorney’s attendance translated to quality legal counsel, and some observers noted attorneys who were “disengaged, confused or unprepared.”

Voices for Utah Children suggests that policymakers start assessing the quality of the legal work, particularly by public defenders who the court appoints.