SALT LAKE CITY — The results of a three-year investigation into Utah's public defense system offered up a stunning indictment of the programs in place to supply attorneys to those who can't afford one on their own.
"Utah’s county-by-county public defender system is failing, and in dire need of repair," concluded the investigation titled "Failing Gideon: Utah's Flawed County-by-County Public Defender System" and conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and students in the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law Civil Rights Clinic.
The study's title refers to the Gideon v. Wainwright decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, which found that individuals charged with a crime had a constitutional right to "constitutionally adequate, effective public defenders." But that right is at risk in Utah's current system, according to the study.
Utah is one of two states — the other being Pennsylvania — that does not have state oversight over the public defender systems nor does it provide any funding, opting instead to leave those responsibilities to the individual counties.
"With no funding, supervision or guidance from the state, counties are left to their own devices," the ACLU report states. "With no state support or oversight, counties in Utah spend an average of only approximately $5.22 per capita on public defense services, which is only 44 percent of the national average of $11.86."
The ACLU report tracked data from nine counties: Box Elder, Daggett, Duchesne, Iron, Kane , San Juan, Sevier, Uintah and Weber. They said an analysis of all of the state's 28 counties would be "unwieldy at best."
Still they found several, consistent issues in the counties they did track.
"Public defenders in the counties we studied appear to be chronically underfunded and overworked, with some handling caseloads that, based on the contract fee, result in $400 (or less) per felony or felony equivalent," the report states. "Those same caseloads may result in an average of less than 10 hours to spend on each such case."
The dire financial situation asserted in the report is even relative to the counties, as legal defenders are given a fraction of the budget that is allocated to county attorney's offices.
"Public defender budgets routinely fall in the range of 25-35 percent of the county attorneys’ budgets, with little or no monies set aside in the public defense budgets for investigative, expert or other resources necessary to build an adequate defense in many cases," the report states.
In Box Elder County, for example, the yearly contract amount for the legal defender system budget in 2010 was $171,500, but the county attorney’s budget was $563,954.
In addition to the lack of funds, the nine counties the study focused on had little to no requirements for those seeking appointment and legal defenders were often selected for contracts by the county attorneys — which they believe creates a conflict of interest.
"We further learned that, in every county we examined, there are no formal systems in place to track public defender caseloads, monitor performance, screen for conflicts of interest, or otherwise to oversee the ongoing provision or quality of public defender services," the report concluded. "Finally, in no county we studied were there sufficient (if any) minimum qualifications or criteria to actually be a public defender."
Emily Chiang, who heads up the civil rights clinic at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law and whose students contributed a large amount of the research used in the analysis, said the problems are not entirely the fault of the counties, as they need a minimum statewide standard. She said that could provide counties with the guidance they need.
"The real take away is if you don't have any minimum baseline and the counties are left to figure things out on their own, they don't have anyone to rely on or ask even at the state level," she said. "You end up with a very uneven system and it results in some serious harm."
Chiang said there are no serious problems in some of the larger counties that have legal defenders associations with staffs and salary, namely Salt Lake and Utah counties.
"(Those attorneys) don't feel pressure to take on private cases to pay their overhead," she explained. "When you have a sufficient population to justify a full office, there's no reason to believe those counties aren't providing good services."
But for everyone else, who may not be so lucky, she said county commissioners and state legislators need to team up to find a "Utah-based solution that works for Utah" and that will at least create some statewide standards or provide an organization for legal defenders across the state, which could end up saving the state money.
"There's an effort to penny pinch in the front end resulting in greater cost at the back end," she said. "If you have people who end up getting more serious sentences than they should have gotten, that, too, actually costs taxpayer money."
Kent Hart, who heads up the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said the report was "long overdue" and will, hopefully, prompt some changes.
"There's been a problem with indigent funding for a very long time and I think that Utah has not really grappled with it yet," Hart said. "I think this report is needed to shine a light on this persistent issue."
Hart said there has always been a "disparity" between the funds and resources available to prosecutors as opposed to defense attorneys, which was also an issue highlighted in the report.
"They have full use of the police and they've got crime labs and experts," Hart said. "The playing field is not even and it's even worse in the smaller counties."
He hopes the state and county governments will take note of the research and at least provide further training for criminal defense attorneys or greater access to the state's crime labs. But Hart said one thing might help more than anything else.
"The funding needs to increase, especially in smaller counties," he said. "Budgets are tight. There's tremendous pressure for local governments to put a line in their budget for indigent defense and there's an incentive to make that as small as possible. But you have to base decisions on quality and effectiveness."