NEPHI, Utah (AP) — An influx of state funding to bolster county public defenders offices has transformed what used to be a one-man operation that helps people in sparsely populated Juab County who can’t afford private attorneys get better legal representation, a recent report found.
The $142,000 from the state in 2017 tripled the staffing in the office and increased the appeal budget, according to a report by the Utah Indigent Defense Commission. The five attorneys have more time to spend with clients, and defendants aren’t rushed into taking plea deals as often, the report found.
A lightened caseload has improved the entire operation, Joanna Landau, director of the commission, told the Deseret News.
“It helps the whole system, because these attorneys have fewer cases, so they can spend more time on each,” Landau said.
Juab County secured the funding after Utah took over oversight of the public defender system statewide in 2016 and agreed to help local governments manage and pay for legal representation for people who can’t afford it. Every state in the nation does this, with Pennsylvania being the last holdout.
Before 2016, each Utah county had to fund its legal defenders. Many counties, especially the smaller ones, struggled to come up with the funding. Juab County covers central Utah west to the Nevada border and has nearly 11,000 residents.
Combined with county funding, Juab County had a budget of $319,000 in 2017 for lawyer salaries, investigators, appeals and other office costs. That’s up from only $163,000 in 2016 when only the county funded the office.
Having five attorneys, and two others on call to help, is a stark contrast to the previous four decades when most defendants who couldn’t afford attorneys were represented by the only attorney in the office, Milton Harmon, who retired in 2016 at the age of 81. Harmon said he was sometimes handling 40 court hearings a day.
Most of the cases in Juab County are drug related.