On July 6, the Grand County Commission approved an agreement for a grant from the Utah Indigent Defense Commission for $83,782 to be spent over the next 12 months. The grant will support the county’s public defender office, which provides legal services to people charged with crimes who cannot afford legal counsel.

Joanna Landau, director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, gave a presentation to the Grand County Commission in February explaining the body’s purpose and the help it can offer counties and municipalities charged with providing for indigent defense. She explained that the right to legal counsel is based in the Sixth Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which relates to criminal prosecutions. In the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, the court ruled that states have the responsibility to provide legal counsel to those who can’t provide for their own counsel 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 the responsibility of providing for indigent defense to counties and cities. The 15-member Utah Indigent Defense Commission was established in 2016 to oversee public defense systems and help ensure quality legal counsel is consistently available across the state. (Utah code defines indigence as having an income of 150% of the federal poverty rate or less.)

The IDC currently works with about 60% of Utah’s 29 counties, collecting data, evaluating needs and performance, and offering guidance, standards, and grants to help improve public defense systems.

Grand County budgets about $240,000 annually for public defense and contracts with six public defenders who cover adult criminal cases in district court and justice court, juvenile delinquency, and parental defense. The IDC looked at caseloads for those attorneys and applied standard caseload capacities for each type of case to try to determine if Grand County has enough public defenders to meet the need. If caseloads are too high, it’s unlikely attorneys have the time needed to provide quality service in each case.

“We’re finding that all counties have room for improvement, even Class 1 counties with big budgets like Salt Lake,” Landau told the commission, referring to such evaluations conducted across the state. Salt Lake County has an average budget of about $21 million for public defense. While Grand County, too, has room for improvement, Landau and Adam Trupp, the assistant director of the IDC who also attended the February meeting, assured the commission that the county has “reasonable” caseloads and “great” public defenders.

IDC grants, Landau elaborated, can help counties with hiring more attorneys, provide a “managing defender” to oversee the local public defense office and track case data, offer case management systems to organize data, provide administrative assistance, and sometimes provide social workers to help with parental rights cases.

“There’s not a one-size fits all model,” said Landau.

IDC grant for Grand County

The county was required to complete a needs assessment to apply for the IDC grant. Associate Commission Administrator Mallory Nassau, who has been heading the effort to partner with the IDC, said that even completing the needs assessment was a “huge challenge” because there is no centralized data tracking system to evaluate needs and strengths within the system. Through another IDC grant, the county was able to purchase licenses for the data tracking system used by the IDC. In future contracts, public defenders will be asked to enter their case data into that system so the county has a more complete picture of public defender performance.

The recently approved $83,782 IDC grant can be used for personnel expenses like wages, salaries, and benefits; contract services; reserve funds for expenses like forensic services; and employee travel. The county can’t use any of the money to replace existing county spending on public defense—the grant agreement specifies that the county will maintain its $240,000 budget. The county must also submit quarterly reports to the IDC with information like number and types of cases filed, caseloads carried by public defenders, and other statistics.

County staff are currently working out the details of a new contract with Aaron Wise, the county’s primary public defender, to reduce Wise’s caseload and appoint him as the managing defender. That transition depends on the county finding a new part-time public defender to take on some of that caseload.

“Ideally, we would cut his caseload in half,” said Nassau.

The county faces the same hiring obstacles as other employers in the area: housing is scarce, and the area is remote and isolated. Nassau hopes that the court system will continue holding some proceedings online, as it was forced to do during coronavirus shut-downs. Online court proceedings would allow a potential new hire to live and work remotely with occasional travel to Grand County.

“That would be a game changer,” said Nassau.

If the county is able to establish that managing defender position and confirm a contract with Wise to fill it, Wise will be responsible for drafting the public defense budget. Nassau said that will be a significant improvement over having county staff without specific public defense expertise responsible for the public defense budget. Wise will also examine current attorney contracts and evaluate if caseloads and compensations are appropriate.

“How do you measure quality? It’s very challenging to figure out, what is ‘zealous quality representation,’” said Nassau, referring to adjectives used in legalese to describe adequate counsel. The county and public defender office are considering ways to improve performance evaluation in the future, like potentially using client exit surveys to collect data.

Further into the future, Nassau hopes Grand County might collaborate with the IDC and neighboring counties to establish a regional position that would oversee public defenders in multiple counties, offering guidance, sharing resources, and maintaining consistent quality across offices. Some advocates in Utah hope the state will eventually consolidate oversight of indigent defense at the state level, following the model of some other states, like Colorado.

Other legal assistance

Public defense is not available in all cases. According to the American Bar Association website,

“The Constitution guarantees free legal help for people who are charged with a crime which might lead to imprisonment and who cannot afford a lawyer.” That leaves those with non-criminal cases involving money or debt, property, eviction or foreclosure, injuries, or family and divorce without the right to a public defender, even if they can’t afford a lawyer. Local nonprofits seek to help meet the needs of those not involved in a criminal case but still involved in the legal system.

For example, since 2019, the Moab Valley Multicultural Center has been offering limited immigration legal services under the guidance of a licensed immigration attorney. The MVMC can also help with things like legal appeals to lessen charges on records that are preventing individuals from accessing housing subsidies, or provide interpretive services in some court cases.

In its July newsletter, the MVMC announced that some of its staff recently received training through the Utah Courts Self-Help Center on how to help clients representing themselves within the legal system.

“Our staff serve as advocates and navigators for folks who cannot afford attorneys,” says the newsletter. MVMC Director Rhiana Medina specified that staff participated in trainings on the Online Court Assistance Program, which covers divorce, custody, protective orders, and other matters; MyCase, a new system that allows people to track their legal cases online; the Non-Lawyer Courtroom Navigator program; and Court Interpreter Ethics.

Nassau noted that another benefit of having a position that oversees public defense in the county is that position can serve as a hub for any related resources available in the community. The managing public defender’s office could direct clients to related services like mental health experts or direct those not eligible for indigent defense to other potential resources.