SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Most low-income people charged with misdemeanors in Utah never see a lawyer, and many of the state’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid, according to a new report commissioned by the state.
Utah and Pennsylvania are the only states where local governments must fund all indigent defense services, without money from the state or oversight to ensure cases are handled properly.
That means rural and poor counties struggle to pay for attorneys for people who can’t afford them, said David Carroll, executive director of the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center, which completed the report. He said Utah’s system is broken.
In misdemeanor cases, defendants who can’t afford a lawyer often don’t get one because legal representation isn’t required if jail time is not on the table. But plea deals often involve the possibility of jail if the defendants don’t fulfill the terms of the agreement, such as paying fines or getting treatment for substance abuse.
Plus, misdemeanor convictions are potentially devastating because they can mean losing federal housing aid, access to student loans or deportation for those in the country illegally.
In one case, a woman who pleaded guilty to writing a bad check was sent to jail at her request because she didn’t have a job and couldn’t afford the fines and restitution of more than $1,300, the report said. She didn’t have a lawyer and the charge didn’t require jail time.
Defendants are “making decisions that have huge impacts on their lives without anything to go on,” Carroll said.
While people accused of more serious felony crimes are getting lawyers in Utah, the lack of statewide oversight in misdemeanor cases can leave public defenders without enough time to dedicate to each case, the report said.
Lawyers become public defenders by signing contracts with counties or cities. Some of those contracts are controlled by judges or prosecutors, meaning lawyers are motivated to keep them happy, sometimes at the expense of their clients, the report said.
Many of those contracts also call for a flat payment no matter how many cases the public defender gets.
In one rural justice court, a public defender is paid $600 a month to handle all indigent cases. In 2013, that lawyer had about 20 cases a month, for an average payment of $30 a case - whether it went to trial or was resolved with a plea deal. That produces a monetary incentive to get cases off the books quickly, the report said.
The justice court was not identified. The report was commissioned and paid for by Utah State Courts, and the Sixth Amendment Center agreed to leave some identifying details out.
Utah’s Judicial Council, a group that represents the state court system, reviewed the report Monday and another report from a council subcommittee that’s been studying the issue since 2011.
The subcommittee report recommends Utah create a statewide indigent defense commission to set standards and offer training and money to local governments. It also suggests municipalities revamp their contracts with public defenders.
State Sen. Todd Weiler, who is on the subcommittee, said he plans legislation next year to address problems with the system. Weiler said the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has been patient as the state studied the issue, but if lawmakers don’t enact some reforms in 2016, the organization could follow through on its threat to sue Utah.
The ACLU said in a statement Monday that the report’s recommendations are not enough.
Spokeswoman Anna Brower said a lawsuit is on the table and “will likely be needed to initiate true reform” if lawmakers don’t make substantial changes next year. A law firm has begun working with the group and they have started drafting a complaint, she said.
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