OGDEN, Utah (AP) — Gov. Gary Herbert has proposed adding $5 million per year to fund public defenders in Utah, a move that advocates say would be a step toward fixing a system that can fall short for people who are accused of crimes but can’t afford their own lawyer.
The request comes after the state was sharply criticized in a 2015 report by the Sixth Amendment Center, which found it was one of just two states that left public-defender funding entirely up to local governments, leaving rural and poor counties struggling to pay, The Standard-Examiner reported. It also found most low-income people charged with misdemeanors in Utah never see a lawyer, and for felony charges, public defenders don’t have enough time to dedicate to each case.
The majority of people accused of crimes, about 80 percent, don’t have the disposable income to hire a private attorney and need a public defender, the ACLU has said.
After the Sixth Amendment report, the state created the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, which has since doled out a total of $5.2 million in grants to cities and counties through grants.
But there’s plenty of work left to do, said the commission’s executive director, Joanna Landau. The governor’s request is a “measured” improvement, but even if it’s approved by lawmakers Utah’s funding would still be relatively low compared to other states, she said.
“We worked hard with the governor to get that number,” Landau said. “We’re not asking for the stars. We’re asking for a stepping stone.”
Other states have been hit by lawsuits alleging they have violated people’s constitutional right to an attorney by underfunding the system to the point that public defenders are too overworked and underpaid to give people a serious defense.
Utah had faced a similar suit from the ALCU, but U.S. District Judge David Nuffer threw it out in March. He found the group had failed to show enough specific evidence of the problem.
Still, the commission created by the Legislature is looking into the issue, especially questions of whether public defenders have excessive case loads and if they’re able to fight effectively for a lower bail for their clients.
“You can’t know these things if you just meet someone for seven minutes and plead them out,” Landau said.
They’re also looking at whether public defenders are independent from local prosecutors and judges who control their funding.
“When (public defender) contracts are run through the prosecutor’s office you run the risk” of undue control, Landau said, adding that even if there’s no direct influence “there’s still an appearance of a lack of independence.”