SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert wants to set aside an extra $5 million next year to ensure Utahns' right to an attorney even if they can't afford one.
The potential boost to Utah's public defender system is "really a measured, calculated amount we need in this third year," said Joanna Landau, director of the Indigent Defense Commission.
The governor's proposal, part of a larger budget plan he unveiled earlier this month, would expand the commission's bandwidth by about four times. Its current ongoing yearly budget is $1.3 million.
The group was created two years ago and works with several Utah cities and counties to help provide attorneys to those who can't afford them. It also offers training and other resources.
Together, the state and local governments now spend an annual total of $36 million on public defenders, Landau said. The price tag may seem high to some, but it's lower than in many neighboring states.
Herbert's plan would raise total spending on indigent defense to $14.10 per Utahn, with the bulk coming from local government funding. The governor's proposed investment falls in line with his other public safety and money-saving recommendations, Landau said.
But the potential infusion still puts Utah behind neighboring Nevada, which sets aside $41 for every state resident; Colorado at $28; and Idaho's $24, according to a commission analysis.
Landau says attorneys who are underpaid, overwhelmed and ill-equipped to do their jobs won't be able to help clients get mental health and drug treatment or be released from custody when it's appropriate. That in turn drives up costs and chips away at public safety, she said.
The court-appointed attorneys handle more than just adult criminal proceedings. They also are assigned to represent low-income Utahns at risk of losing parental rights over youngsters in welfare cases. And they advocate for children and teens in juvenile proceedings.
Counties and cities don't automatically get money and resources from the commission, but they can apply for the assistance to supplement their own programs. In 2018, for example, Ogden received $19,900 from the commission. Utah County was awarded nearly $260,000, and Nephi got a grant to cover about $60,000 in expenses, according to figures maintained by the group.
The commission, made up of local government officers, defense attorneys, lawmakers and others, is working to hash out how much money is needed to support government-appointed attorneys throughout the entire state.
The $5 million earmarked for next year would allow more counties and cities to vie for financial help starting in July, Landau said.
"It's a stepping stone to our longer term purpose, which is to help the state figure out the full scope of its partnerships with local governments," Landau said.
The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1963 landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright ruled a person has a right to an attorney even if the cost is out of reach. Utah's own constitution also guarantees counsel for those who can't afford to hire a lawyer if they ask for one, and judges can appoint a public defender on their own.
The majority of states pay for and oversee their public defender systems, but Utah is one of several where the state and local governments share in the cost.8 comments on this story
Three counties in eastern Utah are the latest to secure financial help from the commission. Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties will share $600,000 in grant money that will help them hire more defense attorneys and fund trainings, the group announced Friday.
The governor's recommendations, released last week, come ahead of Utah's 2019 legislative session, which convenes in January. Lawmakers during the session will hammer out their own version of the budget and must agree on a final budget with Herbert before it can take effect.