Commentary: Indigent defense is improving in Utah

Local governments deserve tremendous recognition for their hard work and commitment to constitutional indigent defense services.

If you have ever watched TV, you probably know if you are arrested or charged with an offense that carries any possibility of incarceration — in Utah that includes every class C misdemeanor through aggravated murder — you have the right to be represented by a defense lawyer. And, if you are indigent and cannot afford a lawyer, a judge must appoint one to represent you at government expense. This right to counsel is fundamental and guaranteed by both the United States and Utah Constitutions.

For over 50 years, Utah’s local governments solely provided indigent defense services. In 2016, all 29 Utah counties and approximately 160 cities did so separately, creating a patchwork of systems described as, “operating without consistent standards and often without sufficient information to determine whether constitutional requirements are being met.”

With the Legislature’s creation of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission (IDC) in 2016, that changed as local governments gained a partner to help create more uniformity across the state. Today, the IDC partners with several local governments to fund indigent defense services and help ensure they meet constitutional muster. This state/local partnership is not unusual, many states share this constitutional responsibility with their local governments. And thanks to the hard work of local government leaders, IDC Commissioners and IDC staff, the partnership is spreading. Utah counties and cities are increasingly collaborating with the state. The IDC has awarded nearly $3 million to local governments for multi-year projects to increase the availability, specialization, resources and commitment of appointed lawyers.

Before 2016, one lawyer represented all indigent defendants in Juab County’s district, juvenile and justice courts. Today, if you are entitled to a public defender, several qualified, committed and independent lawyers are available to represent you in Juab County’s courts and Nephi City Justice Court. They are supervised and supported by the Utah County Public Defender Association (PDA) and the IDC, and they have resources for investigators, experts and forensic examinations, specialized juvenile court experience where necessary, and a defense social worker in child welfare cases. These are true public defenders: independent and zealous lawyers who are committed to clients and to appropriately testing the prosecution’s evidence.

The PDA is receiving a multi-year grant award to help it respond to an explosion in cases. When a public defender has too many cases, she cannot adequately investigate the evidence against her clients, learn what about her client’s circumstances make pretrial release appropriate or file necessary motions, all of which are required for a constitutional defense. With more lawyers to carry cases, everyone has more time to do what is required for clients and the Constitution.

Salt Lake and Uintah Counties are also using IDC funds for more lawyers, and Uintah County has increased access to defense resources.

Ogden prosecutes more criminal cases than many Utah Counties. The city is committed to constitutional defense services at the earliest stages, through video arraignments with lawyers in the Ogden Justice Court. IDC money is ensuring the lawyers at those arraignments have early access to evidence, to better advise clients on plea offers or whether more work on a case is necessary.

These local governments deserve tremendous recognition for their hard work and commitment to constitutional indigent defense services. The state likewise deserves commendation for committing to a constitutional partnership. To continue this partnership, the IDC is in critical need of additional ongoing appropriations from the Legislature. The governor recommended a significant increase in the IDC’s ongoing funding, and a state commitment is critical for a true constitutional partnership to guarantee the right to counsel in Utah.

Joanna Landau

Joanna Landau is the director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, where she works with three staff, 14 commissioners, local governments and every branch of state government, to help ensure the Constitution is alive and well in Utah’s courts.