Utah County is one of only two counties in the state with an office dedicated to providing legal defense to low-income offenders who would otherwise be unable to afford legal representation.
Every year, the County Attorney’s Office assigns thousands of felony, misdemeanor and juvenile cases to the Utah County Public Defenders Association, an entity established in 1994 that has less than two dozen attorneys on staff who represent indigent Utahns.
“I think that you would not find very many undeserving people appointed to our office,” said Director Tom Means.
With Utah Valley’s population growing rapidly, so too have grown the number of cases assigned to and handled by the Public Defenders Association. And without the staffing increases necessary to divvy up these cases, the county’s public defenders have seen their caseloads rise.
And while these defense attorneys are “passionate, caring (and) diligent,” as Utah County public defender Margaret Lindsay described her colleagues, more cases means less time allotted to each case.
“I think there’s no question our caseloads are too high,” Lindsay said.
“No question,” echoed Means.
Since 2000, when Means began keeping track, the number of felony cases assigned to public defenders has more than doubled. There were 1,007 felony cases assigned to the public defender association at the beginning of the century. There were 2,287 assigned in 2018, a 227% increase over 18 years.
And the need for indigent defense in the county has increased as well. In 2000, 72% of cases filed by the Utah County Attorney’s Office required public defense, compared to over 85% of cases last year, according to Means’ data.
In addition to newly filed adult felony cases, public defenders in the county handle all juvenile cases, as mandated by state law, and orders to show cause, where defendants are ordered to re-appear in court after, for example, violating the terms of their probation.
Though significantly less burdensome than felony cases, the number of orders to show cause dealt with by public defenders in the county has skyrocketed from 174 in 2000 to 2,795 in 2018.
What’s causing these increases? Means remembers something his criminal law professor told him while he was in law school at Brigham Young University: the biggest indicator of an increase in crime is an increase in population.
“And I think that’s been proven here in our county,” said Means.
“I think the reality is that the county’s experiencing growing pains,” Lindsay said. “It affects every county department. And it certainly affects us.”
In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended to the American Bar Association that full-time public defenders be limited to handling 150 felony cases, 400 misdemeanor cases, 200 juvenile cases or 25 appeals per year. The bar association adopted these numbers as maximums that “should in no event be exceeded” in order to ensure defendants receive adequate care.
Divided among the 19 full-time, salaried attorneys in Utah County’s public defender office, the 2,287 new felony cases assigned in 2018 averages out to about 120 cases per attorney. This number doesn’t include cases assigned in previous years that are ongoing.
Combining felonies and orders to show cause, Means said these 19 public defenders have taken on an average of 367 cases per attorney this year.
Applying this same metric, public defenders in Salt Lake County handle between 140 and 160 caseloads annually, according to Lindsay, who serves on the board of the state’s Indigent Defense Commission, IDC.
While Means said he didn’t know the breakdown of serious and time-consuming cases, such as homicides or sexual offenses, versus drug and non-violent cases, he said the number of violent cases has increased over two decades.
“We have had a lot more violent cases,” said Means, “a lot more assaults (and) a lot more domestic violence cases than we used to 20 years ago.”
When asked if public defenders in Utah County are overwhelmed with their caseloads, Means said the word has come up before.
“But I don’t think as a rule we are overwhelmed,” he said. “We just work hard.”
This year, the public defender association received over $4.9 million in funding from Utah County, nearly five times the funding given in 2000, which was just over $1 million.
Even with these funding increases, ranging from between 1% and 19% over the nearly 2-decade period, the association’s budget has been in the red for 10 of the last 19 years.
Means said that although annual funding has increased, the county has not put forward money to hire new attorneys in nearly a dozen years.
“We have not had a specific line-item approval to hire new people since 2008,” Means said.
This year, the Utah IDC gave the public defender association about $1.5 million, which was used to hire nine attorneys: seven to oversee adult cases and two to oversee juvenile cases.
Despite this state funding, Means said more money is needed for the county’s defense attorneys to keep up with what is demanded of them.
Means said he has requested that the Utah County Commission approve the hiring of five new attorneys for adult cases, one for juvenile cases and one to handle appeals. Additionally, Means asked that two administrative staff members be hired, as well as two social workers to help defendants struggling drug addiction and mental health issues.
“Right now … the individual attorneys are attempting to (also be) social workers,” Means said. “That’s a very expensive way to do it. Attorneys are much more expensive than social workers.”
In an interview, Commissioner Tanner Ainge said he understood the commission’s “constitutional obligation to fund the right to counsel” but that he wants to see more detailed budget breakdowns and caseload numbers “so we can arrive on the amount of funding that is needed.”
“What we’re mindful of is the level of cases being prosecuted which require public defense and their current staffing levels and the caseload per attorney,” Ainge said. “And as they demonstrate to us that there is more caseload burden being placed on them, and they’re doing everything they can to manage their operation effectively and efficiently, then I think we are going to need to provide increased funding to them.”
As the commissioners outline the county’s 2020 budget, Ainge said he and other commissioners are focused on “outcome-based budgeting” and developing “quality metrics” that justify the funding levels of all county departments.
Since the Utah County Public Defender Association is not an official county department and instead contracts with the county, Ainge said a funding decision does not need to be reached by the time the commission finalizes the 2020 budget.
“While we need to make sure that we have the appropriate level of funding available in our 2020 budget,” he said, “their contract can be renewed and modified and updated at any time.”
The commissioner added that he understands the significance of having an adequately funded public defender association.
“(I) have an appreciation for the work that our public defenders do in our county,” said Ainge. “It’s a critical and important service.”
On Sept. 10, the commission authorized the Utah County Attorney’s Office to hire 15 full-time prosecutors and two full-time legal assistants. Means said, in his eyes, this indicates the necessity of hiring more public defenders.
“If you’ve now recognized the need to increase the staff of the prosecutor’s office to address the caseloads that we’re both working on,” said Means, “it stands to reason that we need to increase our staff.”