The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in some criminal cases that are assigned to public defenders in Utah County, in addition to creating other complications for providing indigent defense.
That’s according to the Utah Public Defender Association, which is responsible for providing “effective and efficient representation to those charged with crimes in Utah County” who can’t afford to hire legal counsel.
During a budget presentation at the Utah County Commission work session meeting on Wednesday, Josh Esplin, chief counsel of the Utah Public Defender Association, told the commission that some case types seem to “be on an upward trend,” including felony DUIs and person-related crimes.
“I think that there are certain trends that do appear in the data that I’ve been looking at,” Esplin said.
At any given time between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, each Utah County public defender handled an average of 120 cases at a time, Esplin said.
So far this year, 5,738 cases have been assigned to public defenders, a number that is projected to reach 6,227 by the end of 2020. The Utah Public Defender Association handled 6,489 cases in 2019 and approximately 5,300 in 2018, according to the presentation.
The pandemic has created other problems regarding indigent defense, Eslpin said, including making it more difficult for attorneys to communicate with clients and delaying the judicial process.
Still, the association was “well prepared for and able to quickly adapt to a COVID environment,” according to Wednesday’s presentation, by utilizing web-based case management software and implementing a remote legal education training plan.
Esplin added that, this year, attorneys made extra efforts to spend time visiting and communicating with their clients.
In November, Tom Means, director of the Utah County Public Defender Association, said there was “no question” that defense attorney caseloads were too high and called for additional funding and staffing.
Earlier this year, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt called the temporary suspension of jury trials during the pandemic a “threat to our liberties” and urged the Utah Supreme Court to reinstate them.