Thursday, April 11, 2013

Salt Lake Tribune Editorial: Lawyer up

What about a centralized State of Utah Public Defender's Office?

Top-notch editorial in yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune, applauding the prospective efforts of a judicial task force as it attempts to dodge the threat of an expensive lawsuit and initiates examination of the state’s patchwork system for providing attorneys to poor accused of crimes. The Utah Judicial Council’s committee — composed of 25 lawmakers, lawyers, judges and experts — will begin to gather data from across the state as soon as June. Hopefully their "corrective" recommendations will come soon thereafter.

"Utah is one of only two states in the country that provides neither funding nor oversight to counties charged with organizing and implementing a system for defending poor people in criminal court.
What results is a 'disastrously inconsistent system' that may take aggressive action to remedy," says Aric Cramer, who lives in Washington County and sits on the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) board of directors.

"If Utah doesn’t start doing a better job of providing legal defense to poor people, the state could have a lawsuit on its hands" according to local and national experts.

Here's the lede from yesterday's opinion piece, which provides the editorial gist:
It is very much to the credit of the Utah judicial system that court administrators are not just sitting around waiting to be sued over the deficiencies in our state’s approach to providing defense attorneys for people who cannot afford to pay for their own, but gathering information about the best way to improve the system.
And it is very much to the credit of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers that those two groups stand ready to sue the state if those efforts fall short.
Because spending money to help people who are not only poor, but also stand accused of crimes, is not always something the Utah political system would be eager to do without the incentive of a lawsuit breathing down its neck.
Check out the full editorial here:
"Spending money to help people who are not only poor, but also stand accused of crimes, is not always something the Utah political system would be eager to do without the incentive of a lawsuit breathing down its neck," the Trib editorial board wisely intones.

Northern Utah civil libertarians of course caught a painful glimpse into the sheer dysfunction of the existing Utah public defender "system" during the past year, as indigent defendant Matthew Stewart was forced to jump through hoops to engage competent trial counsel in his pending death penalty homicide case.

Utah's public defender system clearly needs to be fixed, to eliminate, at the very least, the conflict of interest-laden problem which allows public defenders to be appointed by the County Attorney's Office, the very same office which which prosecutes any given indigent defendant.

One savvy Salt Lake Tribune reader proposes a system wherein the constitutionally-mandated public defender function would be run through a centralized State Public defender's Office, which would not only avoid the above-noted conflict of interest problem, but also more efficiently and effectively distribute specialized public defense resources among Utah counties according to their varying needs:
Due to the never, or barely rising incomes for so many years more and more people will qualify for public defenders should the need arise...
Rural counties with small populations have smaller tax bases and likely fewer cases. A full time defender probably isn't needed. Whereas the more populated counties tend to be understaffed due to case load and budget restraints.
What about a state Public Defender's department? The PD office would establish uniform policies and standards, reporting requirements , set the qualifications and salaries of Defenders, and etc. Each county courthouse would have the Defender's offices within the courthouse..
The state Defender's office would attorneys and staff and assign them to the various counties. Because some counties have larger populations and thus more cases needing a PD and some counties use part time contract attorneys. By having a centralized "distribution" system for attorneys some could be floaters sent to a county when needed or to counties with high case loads.
Rural counties usually can't afford to provide all the resources a PD needs. As a state department that problem would be eliminated.
I'm just brainstorming here.
With little bit of luck, once the Judicial Council's select committee emerges from its investigation and deliberations, a new Utah public defender system reform proposal will look something like the above, wethinks.

So whadda do youthinks, O Gentle Ones?

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