An influx of state funding to bolster county public defenders offices has transformed what used to be a one-man operation helping 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 lower caseload has improved the entire operation, said Joanna Landau, director of the commission, reported the Deseret News.
"It helps the whole system, because these attorneys have fewer cases, so they can spend more time on each," Landau said. "They can do more investigation of each, and they can make sure they're listening to their client and getting the right outcome from their client."
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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 their 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.
"I did everything I could and I thought we gave good representation to every client," he said. "All you can say is you gave it your all, and there wasn't anything else left that you could do."
Most of the cases in Juab County involve people accused of carrying or selling drugs.
Merry Hosie, 33, is beginning a court-ordered plan to deal with her drug addiction after heroin landed her back in the county courtroom in Nephi, Utah, last month. Hosie said she has lost her three children to state custody. She said feels supported by her public defenders.
"Everybody does better with supervision," Hosie said. "I need it to stay clean right now, and I definitely think Nephi is in need of it with their courtrooms and their police officers, because everybody has the potential to misbehave when they're not being watched."
Hosie recently agreed to enter drug court, which grants lighter sentences in return for treatment participation, while pleading guilty to selling 24 grams of heroin. She said the new attorneys are pushing harder to get defendants like her treatment.
The Utah Indigent Defense Commission report found that 14 cases went to drug court in 2017, up from an average of nine the previous three years.
"People's minds are more open," she said. "There's more open possibilities."
Juab County Attorney Ryan Peters said the changes build on 2015 justice reforms in Utah that aim to rehabilitate offenders, not just penalize them.
Other counties have been given smaller multiyear funding to improve their offices. This year, the Utah Indigent Defense Commission is asking for $5 million more from Utah lawmakers to expand the program.