As Remick v. Utah, our lawsuit against the state of Utah over the sorry state of our public defense system, slowly moves forward, we bring you a couple updates from our Yes On Six! Campaign, as we work to realize the constitutional right to an attorney for all Utahns (not just those who can pay for one).
Yes On Six Update! (Don’t Get Too Excited).
As part of this on-going lawsuit, Holland & Hart LLP - the law firm acting as our incredible co-counsel - has collaborated with local researchers to conduct research on current public defender caseloads. The news is not good. Despite numerous dismal reports in the past decade, and despite the early machinations of the state’s first ever Indigent Defense Commission, caseloads among many public defenders are so high as to be completely impracticable.
Dr. David McNeill, a local researcher and assistant director of Open Legal Services, submitted a declaration (you can read the whole thing here) that confirmed what we’ve known for many years now about public defender workloads and the lack of any central oversight for the public defender system.
As Dr. McNeill noted in his declaration, “there is no publicly available listing or centralized registration of attorneys in the State of Utah who represent indigent criminal defendants.” In layman’s terms, that means nobody has been keeping any sort of central records of who is conducting public defense in Utah. Our state has simply relegated to the counties its constitution obligation to provide legal counsel for defendants for people who can’t hire their own attorney…and then never kept track of how the counties were doing, or who they were even hiring!
Because there is so little oversight or centralized data about public defense in our state, Dr. McNeill had to comb through the Utah State Bar directory, then pore over all publicly published court calendars issued by each district and justice court in Utah.
Reviewing a database that spans 48 consecutive weeks, Dr. McNeill confirmed that public defenders appear on at least 67% of all felony cases appearing in our courts. AT LEAST. Because the data collection was somewhat inexact, due to the lack of formal recording of public defender cases, we can assume that the percentage is actually higher, possibly much higher.
Of the 172 public defenders Dr. McNeill identified, 157 appeared on ten or more cases in the dataset. Each of those 157 attorneys appeared on an average of 198 felony cases and 176 misdemeanor cases.
Remember, the American Bar Association recommends that a single attorney handle no more than 150 felony cases in a year – and many experts, including those at the ACLU, have long argued that even these limits are far too high to allow for adequate representation.
Clearly, there is much work to be done to improve Utah’s public defender system. In the meantime, the newly-formed Indigent Defense Commission just awarded its first ever grant to a struggling county seeking to improve its public defense services.
Kudos to Juab County – sort of – for openly recognizing that its public defender system lacked supervision and had no true independence from potential government interference. That painful reality led Juab County – one of Utah’s smaller counties with just about 11,000 residents - to seek help and funding from the Indigent Defense Commission (IDC).
The IDC grant has enabled Juab County to contract with the much larger and more professionalized Utah County Public Defender Association (UCPDA), presaging a regional model that many advocates – including the ACLU of Utah – have contemplated as potentially positive for Utah’s mix of urban and rural counties.