SALT LAKE CITY — Children and teens facing criminal charges often navigate Utah's juvenile court system without help from an attorney, especially in rural parts of the state, a new report has found.
"There is a serious equal protection issue," said Anna Thomas with Voices for Utah Children. "Things are so different outside the Wasatch Front. Outside of Utah County and Salt Lake County, kids and attorneys really face more barriers."
The report comes as state lawmakers consider a possible mandate that would assign public defenders for each minor, a move Thomas says would help address the issues identified in the Thursday report.
The evaluation from her group and law students at the University of Utah found that more than 1 in 4 young defendants across the state — 29 percent — had no attorney present during nearly 200 hearings they observed last year.
The gap in representation is troubling because a person's experience in the juvenile system can predict whether they face criminal charges as an adult, Thomas said.
"When juveniles have an attorney with them, ideally from start to finish, they have a better outcome," she added.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is sponsoring SB32, which would strengthen public defense for Utah's children and teens.
"We have some areas of the state that they've done a very good job with that, and we have other areas of the state where, quite frankly, it appears we just kind of looked the other way and pretended maybe like the Sixth Amendment didn't apply to minors," he said in a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Utah law already requires judges to appoint a lawyer to youths facing felonies in juvenile court, regardless of their ability to pay or whether they've formally asked for one. But those charged with misdemeanors in the state's rural courtrooms often appear alone at key hearings, even if a judge has already assigned an attorney, the report found.
Public defenders often lack time and resources to drive for hours to attend each court date, and they sometimes get the case after several early court dates have already passed. It means they miss out on detention hearings, which determine whether a youth will remain in custody ahead of trial, and at arraignments, a formal reading of charges against their clients, the report states.
Other young people charged with misdemeanors choose to forgo an attorney in order to speed the case along, take accountability or because their parents urged them to, the report found. The review also considered interviews with judges and attorneys.
"They have the same right to be represented by an attorney. But what does that mean when invoking that right is going to get you another three-hour trip, asking your parents to take time off work, having to get out of school?" Thomas said. "It's a huge extra burden."
The observers noted that minors sometimes sign a form waiving their right to representation before a judge can explain an attorney's job. Other times, a judge or prosecutor will caution that requesting a lawyer would prolong the case because juvenile court happens just once a month in some areas.
What's more, even the lesser misdemeanor charges can significantly affect a person's adult life, possibly hurting their chances of getting into college, being hired for a job or renting an apartment, Thomas said. Juvenile records aren't made private or expunged when a person turns 18.
The report's authors declined to call out specific counties and courthouses because the issues are systemic, Thomas said. They observed 196 proceedings in all but two Utah counties — Daggett, which refers juvenile cases to neighboring Uintah, and Garfield, which had few hearings in 2018.
If Utah passes the legislative measure, Thomas said it would join Delaware, North Carolina and Pennsylvania in automatically appointing a public defenders for juveniles (a cost that can later be recouped if a youth is found to actually have the means for an attorney).
The bill would also bar children and teens from waiving their right to an attorney until after they have consulted a lawyer, require public defenders to be present at all proceedings and make technical help available for them.
Joanna Landau, director of the Utah Indigent Defense Commission, said the number of misdemeanor juvenile cases has dropped to 1,500 following prior juvenile justice reforms. She estimates the price tag of Weiler's measure at $775,000, a cost her agency can help absorb through grants to individual counties.
Todd Utzinger, Davis County legal defender coordinator, said he largely supports the bill but is concerned it would require attorneys to be present at hearings that are largely ministerial, possibly pulling them away from other young clients who need more guidance that day.
The proposal awaits a vote in the full Senate.