Stock image
FILE - A legislative panel gave early support Wednesday to a measure that would expand access to attorneys for children and teens in Utah’s juvenile court system.

SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative panel gave early support Wednesday to a measure that would expand access to attorneys for children in Utah’s juvenile court system.

The Judiciary Interim Committee approved, 14-1, a bill guaranteeing the right to a public defendersfor juveniles charged with misdemeanors. Right now, only those charged with felony crimes are automatically appointed an attorney, said Joanna Landau, director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission.

“I think this is a big step in the right direction,” committee Chairman Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said.

Many young Utahns charged with crimes have appeared in court for arraignments and other hearings without an attorney, said Anna Thomas, a policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children. Thomas is working with University of Utah law students to observe and study juvenile cases in Utah.

The youths are largely willing to admit when they’ve done something wrong and want to be held accountable, but they often don’t fully understand their constitutional rights, she said.

“We also know that what happens to youth in the system can have profound impacts later in life,” Thomas said. A bad experience can foster antisocial and anti-authority attitudes.

And even juvenile misdemeanor charges can haunt a person later in life, Landau noted. If a judge finds someone committed a crime before their 18th birthday, it can appear on their record later when they apply for a professional license in Utah.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said those under the age of 18 can't be expected to understand what rights they may give up if they don't have an attorney to help them navigate the justice system.

"I think this is moving us in the right direction," King said.

In juvenile cases, a judge automatically appoints counsel to minors accused of crimes, Landau said, but they can also hire a different attorney on their own or waive their right to a lawyer in some circumstances. Judges may designate a public defender for those accused of misdemeanors, and many do, Landau said, but they are not required to.

"What about a minor who has a trust fund?" asked Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan.

In that case, Landau said, courts can seek reimbursement for the lawyer fees.

The proposal would also clarify other parts of the process for appointing public defenders for adults, giving local governments more power to decide how the attorneys are paid, Landau said.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, opposed the bill because it contains language from an existing Utah law that allows fathers who have children out of wedlock to have a public defender represent them if the mother is seeking to give the child up for adoption through the courts.

Comment on this story

“What we do by this bill is we fund that father’s assertion of a right,” he said.

The panel is expected to debate the measure again ahead of the 2019 legislative session, which convenes in January. It awaits approval from the full House.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated only juveniles charged with felonies can be appointed an attorney under Utah law. In fact, judges can choose to designate public defenders for children charged with misdemeanors, but Utah law currently does not require them to do so.