On July 6, the Grand County Commission approved an agreement for a grant from the Utah Indigent Advocacy Commission for $ 83,782 to be spent over the next 12 months. The grant will support the county’s public defender’s office, which provides legal services to people accused of crimes who cannot afford a lawyer.
Joanna Landau, director of the Utah Indigent Advocacy Commission, gave a presentation to the Grand County Commission in February explaining the purpose of the organization and the help it can offer to counties and municipalities in charge. to provide a defense to the needy. She explained that the right to a lawyer is based on the Sixth Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which concerns criminal prosecution. In Gideon v. Wainwright of the 1963 Supreme Court, the court ruled that states have a responsibility to provide legal advice to those who cannot provide their own lawyer in criminal cases; in Utah, cases involving parental rights also require the state to provide a public defender.
In Utah, as in some other states, the state delegates responsibility for the defense of the indigent to counties and cities. The 15-member Utah Indigent Advocacy Commission was established in 2016 to oversee public defense systems and ensure that quality legal advice is consistently available statewide. (The Utah code defines indigence as income at or below 150% of the federal poverty rate.)
The IDC currently works with about 60% of Utah’s 29 counties, collecting data, assessing needs and performance, and offering advice, standards, and grants to help improve public defense systems.
The Grand County provides an annual budget of approximately $ 240,000 for public defense and contracts with six public defenders who cover adult criminal cases in district and court courts, juvenile delinquency and parental defense. The IDC looked at the workloads of these attorneys and applied standard workload capacities for each type of case to try to determine whether Grand County has enough public defenders to meet the needs. If the workload is too high, lawyers are unlikely to have the time to provide quality service in each case.
“We find that all counties can be improved, even Class 1 counties with big budgets like Salt Lake,” Landau told the commission, referring to such assessments conducted statewide. Salt Lake County has an average budget of about $ 21 million for public defense. While Grand County also has improvements to make, Landau and Adam Trupp, the deputy director of the IDC who also attended the February meeting, assured the commission that the county has a “reasonable workload. “and” great “public defenders.
IDC grants, Landau explained, can help counties hire more lawyers, provide a “managerial advocate” to oversee the local public defense office and track case data, come up with case management systems. to organize data, provide administrative assistance and sometimes provide social workers to help with parental rights cases.
“There is no one size fits all,” Landau said.
IDC Grant for Grand County
The county was required to complete a needs assessment to apply for the IDC grant. The commission’s associate administrator, Mallory Nassau, who led the partnership efforts with the IDC, said that even completing the needs assessment was a “huge challenge” because there is no centralized data tracking system to assess needs and strengths within the system. With another grant from IDC, the county was able to purchase licenses for the data tracking system used by IDC. In future contracts, public defenders will be asked to enter their case data into this system so that the county has a more complete picture of the performance of public defenders.
The recently approved IDC grant of $ 83,782 can be used for personnel costs such as salaries, wages and benefits; contractual services; reserve funds for expenses such as forensic services; and employee travel. The county cannot use the money to replace the county’s existing spending on public defense – the grant agreement specifies that the county will maintain its budget of $ 240,000. The county is also required to submit quarterly reports to the IDC with information such as the number and types of cases filed, the number of cases brought by public defenders, and other statistics.
County staff are currently working on the details of a new contract with Aaron Wise, the county’s senior public advocate, to reduce Wise’s workload and appoint him as lead advocate. This transition depends on the county finding a new part-time public defender to take on some of this workload.
“Ideally, we would cut its workload in half,” Nassau said.
The county faces the same barriers to hiring as other employers in the area: housing is scarce and the area is remote and isolated. Nassau hopes the justice system will continue to hold some proceedings online, as it has been forced to do during coronavirus shutdowns. Online court proceedings would allow a potential new recruit to live and work remotely with occasional trips to Grand County.
“It would be a game changer,” Nassau said.
If the county is able to establish this managerial advocate position and confirm a contract with Wise to fill it, Wise will be responsible for drafting the public defense budget. Nassau said it would be a significant improvement over having county staff without specific public defense expertise be responsible for the public defense budget. Wise will also review current attorney contracts and assess whether the workloads and compensation are appropriate.
“How do you measure the quality? It is very difficult to understand what “quality zealous representation” is, Nassau said, referring to adjectives used in legal jargon to describe an adequate lawyer. The county and the Public Defender’s Office are considering ways to improve performance assessment in the future, such as the potential use of client surveys to collect data.
Later, Nassau hoped Grand County could work with the IDC and neighboring counties to establish a regional position that oversees public defenders in multiple counties, offering advice, sharing resources, and maintaining consistent quality across offices. Some Utah advocates are hopeful that the state eventually consolidates state-level indigent defense oversight, following the pattern of some other states, such as Colorado.
Other legal assistance
Public defense is not available in all cases. According to the American Bar Association website,
“The Constitution guarantees free legal assistance to those accused of a crime which could lead to imprisonment and who cannot afford a lawyer. This leaves those with non-criminal cases involving money or debt, property, eviction or foreclosure, personal injury or family and divorce without the right to a public defender, even if they cannot. afford a lawyer. Local nonprofits seek to help meet the needs of those who are not involved in a criminal case but still involved in the justice system.
For example, since 2019, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center has offered limited immigration legal services under the guidance of a licensed immigration lawyer. The MVMC can also help with things like legal appeals to reduce fees on cases that prevent individuals from accessing housing subsidies, or provide interpretation services in certain court cases.
In its July newsletter, the MVMC announced that some of its employees had recently received training through the Utah Courts Self-Help Center on how to help clients represent themselves in the legal system. .
“Our staff serve as advocates and navigators for people who cannot afford lawyers,” the bulletin said. MVMC Director Rhiana Medina said staff have participated in trainings on the online legal aid program, which covers divorce, custody, protection orders and other issues; MyCase, a new system that allows people to track their legal affairs online; the Courtroom Navigator program for lay people; and the ethics of court interpreters.
Nassau noted that another benefit of having a post that oversees public defense in the county is that that post can serve as a hub for all related resources available in the community. The managing public defender’s office could refer clients to related services such as mental health experts or refer those who are not eligible for indigent advocacy to other potential resources.