While the state puts together an Indigent Defense Commission that will take at least a few years to take action, real people like Sue McAley are suffering NOW because of Utah's failing public defender system.
This blog post was written by ACLU of Utah intern Samantha Stott; an abbreviated version appears in our Spring 2016 Newsletter.
Sue McAley moved to Utah to be closer to nature while recovering from breast cancer. She also suffered from anxiety attacks and PTSD, in response to traumas in her recent past – including an addiction to painkillers, which she had finally kicked.
In July 2014, she walked out of a store in Iron County with a $1.45 item, for which she hadn’t paid, in her pocket (she had paid for other items while in the store). She was arrested for retail theft, a Class B Misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000.
Sue went to Iron County Justice Court a month later, hoping to fight the charge, based on her mental health issues. Unemployed at the time (she had filed for disability), she was found to be indigent and because there was the possibility of jail time, she was assigned a public defender.
“I told the public defender that I wanted to fight it. My medication had just been changed, that was why I had been so spacey and messed up. The attorney told me, ‘they don’t care about that…they just want your money.’ I really didn’t want to plead, I really didn’t want a theft on my record. But he said, ‘No, we just need to plead.’ I just wanted to get out of there, and so I agreed to do it.”
The judge sentences her to six months in jail, but agrees to suspend the sentence if she will pay a fine of $680. Sue asked to be given community service instead. The judge told her, “We don’t do that here.” She told her public defender that she didn’t have a job, that she couldn’t pay a fine like that. He assured her that she would be able to “pay what you can, a little here and there.”
The court set up a payment schedule for her: $25 a month, until the fine was paid off. It would take her until June of 2017…nearly three years. She would be on probation for a year, if she adhered to the payment schedule.
“I showed up at court, five minutes before my case was going to be heard, and the public defender just sits down and tells me what to do. The lawyers and the judge, they don’t want to hear my story, they don’t want to know what happened. They just want me to take a plea and get out of there. In and out. It’s a money-making mill.”
Sue was seeing a therapist for her mental health issues. She began to teach martial arts, and tried to pick up odd jobs to make ends meet.
But six months later, a warrant was issued for her arrest. Sue had failed to “comply with the court’s order” – that is, she had failed to keep up with her $25/month payment plan.
Because Sue was arrested on a Friday, she had to spend the weekend in jail until she could be brought before the judge on Monday. They would not release her unless she paid the fine in its entirety.
When she finally appeared before the judge, Sue again explained her financial situation. She told the judge again, “I can’t pay this fine.”
Sue did not have an attorney with her. Nobody advised her or argued on her behalf. She was alone before the judge, in the custody of the jail.
The judge ordered her to begin making payments on her fine. He did not reduce her fine, or give her any credit, for the weekend she had spent in jail.
“The didn’t give me any credit for time served, he didn’t cut me a break at all. He just tells me to start paying again the next month.”
Sue made a few payments of $15 and $10, when she could, asking each time to be given the opportunity to do community service instead. She was not able to keep up with the payments.
In July 2015, Sue was called back before the court. The court reviewed her case, determined that she “had not complied with the terms of probation.” Again, she did not have an attorney with her. Nobody argued on her behalf.
She attempted to give the judge a letter from her therapist, which explained Sue’s mental health issues and her mental state at the time of the shoplifting incident. The judge did not accept the therapist’s letter. Rather than invoke the original six-month jail sentence, the judge simply turned the case over to the Office of State Debt Collection.
In October 2015, Sue received a letter from the Office of State Debt Collection, informing her that she now owed $861 – her original fine, plus collection fees and “Court-Ordered Post Judgment Interest” that had been assessed. There would be no negotation.
“The judge didn’t even look at the letter from my therapist, he acted indignant when I tried to hand it to him. He didn’t give me the dignity of recognizing that I was making improvements, he just wanted to move on. The public defenders, the prosecutors, the judges…they are all on a first-name basis, they all work together. It feels like your lawyer is workingwith them, NOT for you.”