A bill expanding the option of a public defender to children at effectively any and all juvenile court proceedings is headed to the Utah House after a unanimous vote of support by the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
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 criminal matters.
“This bill would assume that a child is indigent and would offer a public defender until someone declined it or had another attorney there,” Weiler said.
The bill, SB32, has been approved unanimously at every stage of the legislative process to date, earning the full support of a Senate standing committee last month before a 29-0 vote of the full Senate last week.
Weiler said his bill allows for the parents of a child who accepts a public defender to be later billed for those attorneys fees if they’re determined to have means. But his bill would ensure that attorneys are there at all juvenile hearings, including ostensibly procedural proceedings like detention and review hearings. Those hearings are often nothing more than a check-in with the court, but a judge does have the option to send a young defendant to a detention center if there are new violations or other issues.
“If we just take that off the table,” Weiler said, “I’m afraid these kids will fall through the cracks.”
Kane County Attorney Rob Van Dyke spoke against the bill on Friday. He said the option of a public defender at all hearings is “best practice,” but goes beyond the constitutional standards of adequate representation.
“We don’t object to children having attorneys,” Van Dyke said. “We object to the state paying for it.”
Van Dyke questioned whether SB32 suggests that the state knows better than parents, who may intentionally decline to hire representation after their children commit a crime.
“It’s a fundamental issue of, should the state be required to pay when the kid has the ability to pay [and] there’s not real risk of incarceration?" Van Dyke said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill after relatively little debate, with comments centered around clarifying questions for the sponsor and witnesses.
Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said “the world will not fall apart” if roughly 90 percent of the bills at the Legislature do not pass in a given year. But SB32, he suggested, is among the top 10 urgent pieces of legislation.
“This is a bill that we need to pass this session,” Hall said.