Thursday the ACLU of Utah launched “YES ON SIX,” an education and advocacy campaign to push for significant improvements to Utah’s failing county-by-country public defense system.
The organization called for a legislative remedy to be proposed and passed during the 2016 Legislative Session, and made specific requests for that remedy.
“The right to legal counsel, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment, is the keystone of our country’s understanding of justice,” said Karen McCreary, ACLU of Utah Executive Director. “It undergirds our concept of being a free people in contrast to countries that are totalitarian and repressive, where lawyers are not always independent of the government, and individuals can be imprisoned by an all-powerful state without recourse to justice.”
The YES ON SIX Campaign will mobilize community members to share their personal stories and experiences with legislators and policy leaders, through letter-writing and in-person meetings. YES ON SIX will also work to educate the general public about the critical importance of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of legal counsel.
“YES ON SIX is about helping our fellow Utahns understand why public defense is a critical issue for all of us who want Utah to be a safe and just place to live, and who want our criminal justice system to be fair and common-sense,” explained Anna Brower, ACLU of Utah Strategic Communications Manager. “It is also about helping our state and local policymakers understand how this issue affects the lives of real Utahns, every day.”
Legislative advocacy will be a major component of YES ON SIX. At the campaign launch, ACLU of Utah Legislative & Policy Counsel Marina Lowe detailed several elements of a policy framework that would move Utah’s indigent defense system toward a more constitutionally adequate reality. She indicated that there appears to be legislative appetite for such reform, and that the ACLU of Utah is ready to provide concrete recommendations to be part of any legislative remedy.
“We have had years of study and discussion to guide us toward a solution; now is the time to act,” said Lowe. “If we begin now, reform advocates and policymakers can prepare legislation for 2016 that will put us on the path to significantly improving indigent defense in Utah.”
Among the ACLU’s requirements for an acceptable legislative solution are:
An independent, fully-funded, fully-staffed statewide public defender commission;
Substantial state funding so even rural counties can provide sufficient public defender services;
An end to flat-fee contracting, which creates negative financial incentives and excessive pressure for public defenders;
True independence for public defenders at the county level, without involvement by prosecutors in the selection or contract negotiation processes; and
Funding and resource parity between the defense and prosecution in every county.
The launch of YES ON SIX marks the fourth anniversary of the release of “Failing Gideon: Utah’s Flawed County-by-County System Public Defender System,” an ACLU of Utah report which documented how the state is failing to fulfill its Sixth Amendment obligations.
“Every county we studied fell far short of meeting the national standards set by the American Bar Association,” recalled John Mejia, ACLU of Utah Legal Director. “In four years since we released Failing Gideon, we have yet to see the state make any efforts to implement any substantive changes.”
Mejia and Leah Farrell, ACLU of Utah Staff Attorney, affirmed that while hopes are high that a legislative solution can be proposed and passed in 2016, eventual legal action is not precluded.
“There is a great opportunity now to find a solution without litigation,” said Farrell. “But all options remain on the table.”
As part of the YES ON SIX launch, the ACLU of Utah invited members of the public to visit acluutah.org and click on the Take Action link to write their legislators about this important issue. The ACLU of Utah is also interested in hearing personal stories and experiences from community members who have been impacted by Utah’s inadequate public defense system.