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Silver lining in threatened lawsuits over indigent defense, says editorial

Posted Apr 11, 2013 5:35 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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In Utah, counties are on their own when it comes to indigent defense. The state provides no funding and no oversight.

The problem, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, is the “likelihood that such a system will be wildly inconsistent.” In an editorial, the newspaper praises the judicial system for commissioning an audit and applauds two groups for threatening a lawsuit.

The editorial begins this way: “It is very much to the credit of the Utah judicial system that court administrators are not just sitting around waiting to be sued over the deficiencies in our state’s approach to providing defense attorneys for people who cannot afford to pay for their own, but gathering information about the best way to improve the system.

“And it is very much to the credit of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers that those two groups stand ready to sue the state if those efforts fall short.

“Because spending money to help people who are not only poor, but also stand accused of crimes, is not always something the Utah political system would be eager to do without the incentive of a lawsuit breathing down its neck.”

The editorial says Utah is one of only two states that don’t provide funding or oversight for indigent defense. (The other is Pennsylvania, Sixth Amendment Center Director David Carroll told the Associated Press.) The state needs a justice system that doesn’t play favorites, the newspaper says. “The possibility—no, the certainty—that unlucky, unappealing, unconnected and underrepresented people would be railroaded into prison just so the system could close a case, is not acceptable.”

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