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ACLU Sues Utah For Failing Indigent Defense System

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah is suing the state for failing to provide adequate indigent defense services to the public…a requirement under the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The ACLU issued a report back in 2011 that said Utah was falling short of its obligation to provide attorney’s to criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire one. The 6th Amendment Center, based in Boston, Massachusetts, reached the same conclusion last fall when it released a report of its own.

Marina Lowe is the legislative and policy council for the ACLU of Utah.

“People’s rights are being violated today,” Lowe says. “It’s not enough to say, in three years maybe you’ll get what is your due under the constitution. It’s not like your rights can be put on a layaway plan.”

Utah is one of only two states that neither funds, nor oversees indigent defense. That responsibility is left to individual counties. That’s led to inconsistent service across the state, says Salt Lake City Attorney and former public defender Rich Mauro.

“If lawyers only have a short period of time to simply meet their client in court and plead them guilty and go over the policy reports with them on the morning of their pretrial, that’s not effective representation,” Mauro says. “Is that going on in the state? That’s absolutely going on in the state.”

During the 2016 Legislative Session, lawmakers passed a bill to create an indigent defense commission to track cases and develop guidelines for local defenders. It also provided $1.5 million in one-time funding for county governments. The ACLU’s Marina Low says that’s insignificant considering counties across the state spend roughly $24 million per year on indigent defense. 

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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