Salt Lake City, Utah- (ABC 4 Utah) – It’s being called a constitutional crisis and one state senator is trying to take a step to fix it.
Thursday, State Senator, Todd Weiler’s Indigent Defense Bill had its first test at the Capitol.
Recent reports are very critical of the county by county public defense system in Utah.
“People are being denied their constitutional rights, very basic constitutional rights every day in justice courts and district courts,” said Anna Brower with the ACLU of Utah.
The reason? Reports suggest public defenders are carrying extremely heavy workloads, prosecutors are involved in contracting decisions with public defenders and there is a major discrepancy in resources between the two sides.
“It’s an urgent problem, not just for people in the criminal justice system, but for all of us who are paying for the criminal justice system and living in our communities,” said Brower.
The ACLU has successfully sued states over this and Utah could be next.
Weiler hopes to avoid that.
“My argument to my colleagues is either we can do this as a legislative body, which is the appropriate way or a federal judge can do it for us next year in court,” said Weiler, ( R ) Woods Cross.
Weiler is sponsoring Senate Bill 155, which seeks three to six million dollars for indigent defense.
The money would come from the general fund and be used to create an oversight commission and hire more public defenders.
“We have an obligation to provide competent defense attorneys for poor people who are facing potential jail time and we are doing a lousy job at that,” said Weiler.
The ACLU sees the effort as a good sign, but it doesn’t mean a lawsuit is off the table.
“This is not a three million dollar problem in Utah, this is a multi-million dollar problem in Utah,” said Brower.
In committee there was some concern over how the bill would be funded, but in the end it passed on a unanimous vote.
It is now off to the full senate.