One of the more important pieces of legislation that passed during the 2016 Legislative Session was SB 155. The bill, sponsored by Senator Todd Weiler, creates a statewide commission charged with adopting guiding principles for the oversight and assessment of public criminal defense services. The bill appropriated $2 million towards the creation and staffing of that commission and the distribution of grant money to help counties and cities administer indigent defense.
The issue of indigent defense came to head in 2015 with the publication of a years in the works report from the Sixth Amendment Center titled The Right to Counsel in Utah: An Assessment of Trial-Level Indigent Defense Services as well as a lawsuit filed against the State of Utah and Washington County over inadequate indigent defense. Last year, Counties by the Numbers considered counties’ indigent defense funding over the past decade. This article will compare Utah’s indigent defense system with those of the other 49 states in the Union.
Creating a Statewide Commission
The major impetus behind SB 155 was the creation of a statewide commission to consider indigent defense practices and to offer to local government and the legislature recommendations to improve our indigent defense system. The newly created commission will consist of eleven members, nine of which will be appointed by the governor with the remaining two appointed by the Utah Judicial Council and the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Two of the governor’s appointments come from recommendations from the Utah Association of Counties with a county appointee coming from an urban county and the other appointee from a rural county.
According to the American Bar Association, every state should have commission dedicated to indigent defense oversight. In creating the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, Utah becomes the 34th state in the Union to form such a commission. Figure 1 shows the states that do and don’t have commissions.
State Funding for Indigent Defense
Prior to the $2 million appropriation included with SB 155, Utah was one of four states* in the nation not contributing to indigent defense according to data provided by the Sixth Amendment Center. Half of the states in the Union provide all of the indigent defense spending in their systems, while another seven contribute over 50 percent of the total, and 14 states contribute some but less than half of the total. The states’ totals are presented in table 1.
So just how much does SB 155’s influx of $2 million affect Utah’s ranking? Not much at all.
According to county records, Utah’s 29 counties budgeted just over $29 million towards indigent defense in 2015. If we add SB 155’s $2 million appropriation to that number, we find that the state portion of indigent defense funding is just over 6 percent (and keep in mind that this does not include any funding provided by Utah’s municipalities which would push the state’s number down even further). At the best, SB 155 has moved Utah from a tie for 47th all the way up to 45th in the nation for paying its portion of indigent defense.
Fortunately, we’re not done with indigent defense reform in Utah. The Commission will begin looking at improvements to our system and offering its suggestions to the Legislature and local government. Senator Weiler has pledged to return to the issue in 2017. And UAC will continue pushing for more state funding to address this statewide issue. While SB 155 was a good start, we still have much to do.
*Other sources list Utah and Pennsylvania as the only two states not contributing to their indigent defense system. (Pennsylvania must be feeling pretty lonely right about now.)
If you have a subject you’d like UAC to explore in a future Counties by the Numbers article, please email Arie Van De Graaff at firstname.lastname@example.org