Criminal Defendants Sue State Of Utah For Blowing Off The Sixth Amendment
from the the-best-lawyers-$0-can-buy dept
So much for those “inalienable rights.” The Sixth Amendment — among other things — guarantees representation for criminal defendants. This guarantee has been declared null and void in two states: Utah and Pennsylvania.
The problem isn’t that these states aren’t willing to comply with both the Sixth Amendment and the Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision. It’s just that they’re not going to spend any of their money doing it. In these states, funding for indigent defense is left up to local governments, with no additional support coming from the state level.
This causes problems for smaller locales, which often don’t have the revenue to fully fund the legal defenders the accused are (supposedly) entitled to. But it’s not just a matter of funding. It’s also a matter of priorities. The state of Utah is currently being sued because of its unwillingness to ensure public defenders are properly funded. There’s money available, but lawmakers have shown an unending willingness to only fund half of the criminal justice equation.
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.
The lawsuit points out that the lack of funding has hampered both of their cases. For one of the two defendants bringing the suit, the lack of funding resulted in his public defender’s contract not being renewed, basically leaving him without capable representation.
At the time this lawsuit was filed, Plaintiffs were being represented by public defenders. During that representation, Washington County did not renew the public defender contract for Mr. Paulus’ public defender which makes it impossible for him to continue to his currently scheduled trial date.
Mr. Paulus faces 25 years to life in the Utah State Prison if he is convicted of his crimes. Mr. Paulus had a previous public defender, Ed Flint, who had obtained a private investigator interview a number of witnesses, but Mr. Flint had not retained any expert witnesses because of the contract issues with the Defendants as it relates to the public defender system in Washington County. As of the date of the filing of this action, Aric Cramer, who had two contracts and subcontracted with Ed Flint, did not have these two contacts renewed. Mr. Cramer would also subcontract with Ariel Taylor. On information and belief, one of those contacts are still unfilled.
On information and belief, attorney Ariel Taylor has been awarded one of those two vacant contacts. However, Mr. Taylor has no knowledge or involvement in the Mr. Paulus’ case prior to the non-renewal of Mr. Flint and Mr. Cramer’s contracts.
And it’s not just that defendants are in danger of losing lawyers familiar with their cases if contracts aren’t renewed. Years of underfunding and neglect by local governance has led to an ad hoc public defense network which does little to ensure defendants receive competent assistance.
Defendants exercise no supervision over the county indigent defense programs. They have also failed to establish, require, or enforce any practice standards or gridlines for the portions of noncapital indigent defendants receive constitutionally adequate representation.
National standards pertaining to the administration and provision of indigent defense programs have been in existence for decades . State and local entities across the country have adopted many of these practices standards. Washington County has refused to do so.
The lawsuit is aiming for class status, which would draw in many other criminal defendants — either imprisoned or still awaiting trial.
The numbers cited in the suit aren’t anomalous. The complaint that defenders’ offices are underfunded can be heard all over the nation. It’s just that two states have further tipped the scales in favor of prosecutors by passing all costs on to local governments. And when there’s a limited amount of money to spend, it plays better with voters to hand it to the law enforcement side, rather than a system that helps “guilty” people “escape” punishment. Yes, I’m aware our justice system is predicated on the presumption of innocence, but that’s the ideal, not the prevailing perception.
A system that is routinely a travesty at best is a complete debacle in Utah, quite possibly to the point of being unconstitutional. But that’s the way the accused are treated. The system prefers plea bargains to trials and convictions to exonerations by a large margin — something that can be immediately confirmed by taking a glance at government balance sheets.
At best, this case will force the state to start funding indigent defense. But much more needs to be done before the system can be considered equitable.