Utah Sued for $0 Budget for Indigent Defense

     SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – Utah “for decades” has dumped the costs of indigent criminal defense on its counties, leading to constitutionally inadequate defense from overworked and underpaid attorneys, two men claim in a class action.
     William Cox and Edward Paulus sued the state, Washington County, Gov. Gary Herbert and the leaders of both houses in the Legislature on Friday in Federal Court.
     Utah is one of only two states nationwide that provide no state funding for indigent defense. It ranks 48th in the nation in per capita funding of indigent defense, according to the complaint.
     Nor has the state set standards for contracted indigent defenders, or ensured that counties provide “constitutionally adequate” legal representation, the men say. Utah counties design and administer their own indigent defense programs.
     Washington County uses fixed-price contracts to pay local attorneys for indigent defense, and budgeted $760,688 for indigent defense in this year. The county budgeted $2.8 million for prosecution this year, and the state has budgeted $18.6 million for criminal prosecution, and not a dime for defense.
     Washington County is in the extreme southwest corner of the state. Its seat is St. George.
     “Defendants enter into fixed-price contracts with local attorneys to provide indigent defense services to those charged with criminal wrongdoing in the district court,” the complaint states. “The contacts are structured and administered in a manner that impedes the ability of the attorneys to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation to their clients.”
     The state does this, the plaintiffs say, “to minimize potential financial liability rather than to ensure adequate defense representation.”
     “To keep costs low, the defendants refuse to budget for necessary attorney staff, they refuse to compensate indigent counsel adequately, and they refuse to provide adequate funds for necessary support services such as investigators, expert witnesses, paralegal, and secretarial assistance,” the lawsuit adds.
     Nor does the state require that public defenders be “hired on merit, train them in criminal defense, issue written practice standards, or monitor or limit excessive workloads.”
     “Defendants have known for decades that the failure to set adequate and provide the resources to meet them, and the consequent inability to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation, was improper,” the complaint states.
     Plaintiffs’ counsel Michael Studebaker told Courthouse News that the state’s funding requirements, or lack thereof, mean “only the rich get justice.”
     “Our indigent defense system fails all national standards. More importantly, it fails those charged with a crime,” Studebaker said. “It leads to a system of only the rich get justice. Washington County is just the tip of the iceberg.”
     The ACLU of Utah, which is not a party to the case, said Utah is “experiencing a catastrophic failure of public defense.”
     “Every day, all across Utah, members of our communities are being either functionally or explicitly denied their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel, if they are unable to afford an attorney,” the ACLU said.
     Gov. Herbert’s deputy director of communications, Aimee Edwards, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
     Cox, charged in Washington County with a third-degree felony for working as an unlicensed broker or agent, faces at least 5 years in prison.
     Paulus faces up to life on first-degree felony aggravated sexual abuse charges.
     They seek class certification and an injunction requiring the defendants to implement a full-time indigent defense program, to comply with the Sixth and 14th Amendments.
     Attorney Studebaker’s office is in Ogden.

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