SALT LAKE CITY — Facing a significant caseload following more than 1,000 arrests in Operation Rio Grande, Salt Lake County has been awarded about $368,000 over two years to hire two more attorneys.
The Utah Indigent Defense Commission voted Wednesday to award the grant money of about $184,000 per year to help absorb the expected two-year increase in local criminal caseload connected with Operation Rio Grande — which is expected to continue until the Road Home's downtown shelter shutters in June 2019.
"The grant is intended to ensure adults prosecuted for criminal offenses in Salt Lake County justice and district courts related to Rio Grande receive the constitutionally effective defense representation to which they are entitled," Utah Indigent Defense Commission officials said in a statement issued Thursday.
Judging from reports of more than 1,000 arrests in Operation Rio Grande's first four weeks, such a large caseload increase would require Salt Lake Legal Defender Association attorneys to handle "well more than the nationally recommended number of cases for public defenders," the statement said.
National standards recommend public defenders handle only 400 annual cases, while the Operation Rio Grande arrests would require association attorneys to handle about 494 misdemeanors on top of their 127 probation violation cases in 2018, the Utah Indigent Defense Commission estimates.
The grant will "help mitigate some of this increased workload by providing the two additional attorneys to absorb cases and allow all attorneys to give their cases the time and attention necessary to provide a constitutionally effective defense in each case," commission officials said.
In order to deliver the grant, the attorneys association will reimburse the county on a quarterly basis after receiving reports showing it has appropriately spent the money on attorneys to provide defenses for Operation Rio Grande arrests.
"The county is to be commended for committing to ensuring constitutional representation in connection with Rio Grande and in all cases where Utah law requires it to provide those indigent defense services," commission officials said.