The Sixth Amendment guarantees legal counsel to all people who are facing possible jail time on criminal charges, regardless of whether they can afford an attorney. But there’s no question that for many people in Utah there might as well not be a Sixth Amendment at all.
Utah’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid, often expected to bid for bottom-of-the-barrel contracts that threaten their ethical obligations to their clients. They often have little choice but to advise their clients to accept plea deals structured by prosecutors, regardless of innocence or guilt or mitigating circumstances.
How do we know this? Because the issue has been studied to death.
In recent years, there have been councils, task forces, reports and warnings. Regardless of who does the information gathering, the data (whether statistics, anecdotes, or court observations) always show the same thing: Utah is experiencing a catastrophic failure of public defense.
There is no state funding, no state oversight, no support for our rural counties, insufficient training for public defenders, not enough independence from county prosecutors, little or no resources for experts and investigators…I could go on.
But somehow, no matter how much we talk about this, Utah leaders just don’t seem to be able to grasp the crushing breadth and depth of our state’s Sixth Amendment crisis.
Most recently, a scathing report was released by the Sixth Amendment Center, a well-regarded and non-partisan research organization with vast experience chronicling the many problems in public defender systems nationwide.
The 6AC was diplomatic in its reporting, and generously recognized the state for at least acknowledging there was a problem. But despite these kind words, the reality of our situation was nonetheless laid bare by the 6AC’s report:
Everyday, 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.
When people most desperately need the support of legal counsel, when they require the most protection from government power and state authority, they are being left alone in the district and justice courts of Utah without an advocate in their corner.
And yet, the response to this information by state leaders seems to be a collective shrug, accompanied by some obligatory handwringing, as well as a lot of congratulatory back-slapping for having the “courage” to commission a study.
Then when pressed about how the crisis will be alleviated, leaders have actually had the nerve to say, “We need more information before taking action.”
During the 2016 Legislative Session, Senator Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross) will introduce legislation to establish a statewide public defense commission responsible for providing guidelines and oversight.
A statewide commission is a valuable piece of any solution to Utah’s pressing public defense problems – but it’s not nearly enough. Even if the legislation passes, the Commission likely won’t be functional for two or even three years from now.
Of course a commission will be critical for setting standards and monitoring public defender performance, but if there is no infusion of funding to the counties, how will they ever MEET those standards, or RECTIFY performance problems?
If the commission ends up being just an “information-gathering” body, we’ll never get the type of reform we desperately need…you know, the kind that actually helps the little guy - on the ground level, poor and charged with a crime, his liberty threatened - who really needs it.
Moreover, the collateral consequences of a failed public defense system are crushing.
- Innocent people can end up spending years in prison, while public safety is compromised by guilty individuals going unprosecuted.
- Poor people who are willing to admit they did something wrong can nonetheless end up in jail, unable to pay excessive fines.
- Some defendants end up waiting in jail for weeks, pre-trial, because they can’t afford bail that is set too high. Jobs are lost, education is suspended, children are sent to live with relatives, health suffers.
By not investing in a constitutionally-adequate public defense system, Utah is tearing apart families, wasting millions of dollars on unnecessary incarceration, saddling otherwise productive people with criminal records, abusing the mentally ill, and causing financial devastation to already poor individuals and communities.
In the coming weeks, we will share with you what this crisis looks like on an individual level. We will relay stories of people who experienced a wide range of injustices because of our failing public defense system.
Our hope is to build public support for substantial reform – even beyond much-needed preliminary legislation to establish a commission. We anticipate that litigation will be necessary to force Utah leaders to do what is necessary to fulfill our state’s Sixth Amendment obligations.