Last week, the Salt Lake County Council discussed ways in which the county can eliminate pay gaps between public defenders and county prosecutors. This is very good news.

Sufficient pay, oversight, support and workload are all critical issues being faced by public defender systems nationwide. Kudos to Salt Lake County for being proactive in pursuing innovative solutions!

While it is encouraging that Salt Lake County is trying to stay ahead of the curve, it is discouraging that it is the only county in Utah publicly speaking about this topic, because it arguably already has the strongest system in the entire state for providing legal defense to individuals who are not able to afford a private attorney.

While it’s nice to read about Salt Lake County’s efforts, we’d LOVE to see headlines proclaiming that Weber County, Beaver County, Carbon County, Wasatch County, Washington County – you get the idea – are all pursuing improvements.

Even better, we’d love to see a headline saying that the STATE is finally taking responsibility for fulfilling Utah’s constitutional obligation to provide any person charged with a crime with a vigorous defense – regardless of ability to pay.

The American Bar Association has ten guiding principles for a constitutionally adequate system of indigent defense.

Four years ago the ACLU of Utah released the report “Failing Gideon,” which illustrated the sorry state of Utah’s indigent defense system. The state has yet to take responsibility or action. We are still waiting for the Utah Judicial Council’s Study Committee on the Representation of Indigent Criminal Defendants to issue it’s own report, which we fully expect to confirm what the ACLU of Utah discussed in ours.

In the meantime, our neighbor to the north, the ACLU of Idaho, filed a lawsuit just last month, complaining about the same problems with their indigent defense system that are rampant in Utah.

The ACLU of Idaho is not the first to take their commitment to fixing a failing public defense structure to the courts: our ACLU colleagues in Michigan, Montana and New York have all entered into lengthy, costly and contentious court battles.

The Idaho complaint asks for the exactly what we need in Utah – and which we’d love to see proposed by our legislature WITHOUT a time- and resource-draining lawsuit: 

  • a plan to develop and implement a statewide system of public defense that is consistent with our federal and state constitutions;
  •  uniform workload, performance and training standards for attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants;
  • a method for ensuring accountability for these standards and monitoring effectiveness; and
  • an end to fixed-fee contracts in the delivery of indigent-defense services.

Only by pursuing such a serious state-level solution can Utah take full responsibility for providing constitutionally adequate legal representation to all people, accused of a crime, who can’t afford a private attorney.

Every day, the lives of regular Utahns are seriously impacted by the sorry state of our indigent defense system:

  • Utahns routinely give up their right to a trial, because their public defender doesn’t have the time or resources to represent them in a trial. 
  • They accept plea deals for crimes they did not commit.
  • They sit in county jails for weeks, waiting for a visit from their public defender.
  • They are fired from jobs, split from spouses, lose custody of children...all while waiting for adequate legal representation.  

August will mark the fourth anniversary of the release of Failing Gideon, and Utah’s citizens are still waiting to realize their Sixth Amendment rights.

Utahns need a chance to vote “YES ON 6” - a chance to affirm our Sixth Amendment commitments through legislation supported and enacted by our elected representatives...not five years from now, but in the next legislative session. 

That is why the ACLU of Utah is pushing for legislation that will be Utah's first real step toward a fair and effective system of provide indigent defense.  Because every day we wait is another day too long.