ACLU says Utah is failing you on your right to a lawyer

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SALT LAKE CITY — The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is calling on the state to take oversight of the criminal defense system for poor defendants, saying the current system is plagued with problems.

At a news conference Tuesday, the civil rights legal group said there is no state control over who provides criminal defense attorneys to people who can’t afford a lawyer. You have a constitutional right to an attorney, but the ACLU claims that public defense attorneys are frequently overworked, underqualified, underfunded and sometimes hand-picked by prosecutors.

“It is an issue of fundamental fairness that goes to the heart of our freedom as Americans and profoundly implicates our moral responsibility to each other,” said John Mejia, the ACLU of Utah’s legal director.

Barb Munoz, the director of the Community Action Partnership of Utah, said not having adequate legal representation in court makes it hard for people to keep their jobs, especially if an overworked public defender pushes a plea deal without vetting the case or exploring other legal options (including diversions).

Members of the Community Action Partnership of Utah and the ACLU of Utah hold a news conference to call for state oversight of the public defender system. (Photo by Ben Winslow)

Members of the Community Action Partnership of Utah and the ACLU of Utah hold a news conference to call for state oversight of the public defender system. (Photo by Ben Winslow)

“If we provide better public defense, we’re helping people stay out of poverty,” she said. “If people are sitting in jail because they have to wait to talk to a public defender or pay a fine, they’re not going to work. They’re not supporting their family. It’s not that they don’t want to. They’re not able to.”

Four years ago, the ACLU released a damning report entitled “Failing Gideon” that concluded many of Utah’s 29 counties were failing to provide an adequate defense for people who were given court-appointed attorneys. In some cases, prosecutors helped pick who got the public defender contracts, and some lawyers were significantly underpaid ($400 or less per felony) and underfunded compared to the vast resources of prosecutor’s offices (in some cases, a public defender’s contract accounted for only 25% of the total budget of a county attorney).

The ACLU’s report went county-by-county in Utah and documented other problems with public defenders, including inexperience and an extremely high caseload that could be in violation of state law.

Read the report here:

Since the report was released, the ACLU said it has sought reforms throughout the state — but none have come. The group called on the Utah State Legislature to take up the issue in January. Some lawmakers have expressed interest, especially since the legislature just passed a series of criminal justice reforms aimed at getting people more help like rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

If the legislature doesn’t act next year, the ACLU could sue like it has in other states that have failed to provide resources to the public defender system.

“A lawsuit is on the table,” said Leah Farrell, the ACLU of Utah’s staff attorney.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who leads the Statewide Association of Prosecutors, said he was interested in having discussions about ways to improve the public defender system.

“I share in the concerns to assure due process and the constitutional rights of every defendant. That’s a commitment we make as prosecutors,” Gill told FOX 13. “When it comes to the constitutional rights of individuals, everything is worth looking at. We need to make sure it’s not just a broad brush, there are certain regional realities we need to recognize.”