With Clock Ticking for Utah, Bill Pushes Forward to Study Indigent Defense

Senator Todd Weiler (Republican - Woods Cross)
Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross)

A bill that would help deal with Utah’s struggling indigent defense system (the system in place to ensure that those who can not afford an attorney can still receive one) unanimously passed out of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee Friday.

SB 155 – Indigent Defense Commission, sponsored by Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross), creates the Utah Indigent Defense Commission which would be charged with studying the indigent defense system statewide. They will be required to submit an annual report to the Judiciary Interim Committee.

Weiler said that there are major problems with Utah’s indigent defense system. Among these issues are problems with county attorneys advising county commissioners on who to give public defender contracts to. He further noted that in situations where a public defender is too aggressive and makes a number of motions, a prosecutor might tell the county not to renew that attorney’s contract.

“As a state, we don’t have anyone making sure that we’re meeting our constitutional obligation as a state under the Sixth Amendment. We don’t have anyone tapping the county commissioners on the shoulder and saying, ‘Your contract’s not appropriate and here’s a model template that we’d like you to use.’ We don’t have anyone reminding the county attorneys, ‘You don’t get to pick your opponents and you don’t get to blackball opponents that make you work too hard.’ We don’t have anyone at the state level that is doing that, and we need to have that,” said Weiler”

Adam Trupp, CEO of the Utah Association of Counties, supports the bill but takes issue with some of Weiler’s comments about what counties are doing. “The county attorneys across the state have been very much interested in this because of their interest in seeing justice served and in seeing people properly represented. The idea that they would blackball people for doing good work is absolutely inaccurate, I believe. However, there are times when the county attorney will know an individual who is one of the few attorneys willing to take these contracts in the county and know that they are probably unfit to do that work.”

Weiler responded by saying that he is not trying to assail counties. “I’m not here to beat up on counties; they’re part of the solution. I love my county and I love every county I’ve been involved with, but there are problems. Right now, I just want to point out, in Weber County the public defender has to go to the county attorney’s office to ask for more money. That’s a problem. We’ve got to fix this system.”

Senator Daniel Thatcher (Republican – West Valley City) applauded Weiler for bringing the bill forward. “I think this is one of the single most important pieces of legislation that has ever been proposed in the state of Utah. This is so critically important and so critically needed.”

SB 155 calls for a one-time allocation of $3 million to fund the commission, although Weiler acknowledges that probably isn’t enough to solve all the system’s existing issues. “Is three million enough? No. Is six million enough? Maybe, but probably not.”

Kent Hart, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, agrees that the money being asked for is not sufficient. “The amount that Senator Weiler has asked for is significant, but I can attest it is not enough. If Salt Lake County thinks $17 million is enough money for 1 million citizens of this state, there are 2 other million citizens who are not getting enough money. That’s $10 million for 2 million people. It’s just not enough money.”

Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah, feels that the bill simply isn’t good enough. “Simply put, regardless of good intentions, this legislation does not commit the state of Utah to invest the amount of money, attention, and energy needed to resolve this crisis. This state has a constitutional obligation to ensure that every person who is accused of a crime and is at risk of losing his or her liberty because of it has a vigorous legal defense to protect that threatened liberty.”

The ACLU of Utah has been threatening to file a lawsuit against the state for the past seven years unless changes were made, but is holding off until this legislative session concludes.

SB 155 now heads to the full Senate for its consideration.

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