Weber County Indigent Defenders Program First of Its Kind in Utah | News, Sports, Jobs
Weber County is the first in the state to have a full-time indigent advocacy program, a development the new director says means better advocacy for impoverished arrestees, who receive adequate representation guaranteed by the Constitution.
Salt Lake and Utah counties have well-established nonprofit indigent advocacy programs that operate with county funding and other sources, but Weber is the first county to create an in-house agency with a director. and full-time attorneys, officials said. implied.
Jim Retallick, 63, who has been a criminal defense attorney in Ogden for 26 years, started Feb. 1 as director of the Weber Public Defender Group.
“My goal is to get involved from the day they are arrested and even beyond after sentencing to help them move in the right direction,” Retallick said. Many defendants need help getting mental health and addictions counseling and housing.
Retallick said moving away from reliance on part-time contract attorneys will be a central goal. He said he hopes to be able to hire some of the existing contract defenders for full-time positions in the new office.
“The biggest issue has probably been the nature of a contract attorney,” said Retallick, who worked as a contract attorney before taking his new job. “You have some income from the public defender’s job, but if that’s not enough to cover your overhead of a secretary and office and equipment, you have to supplement that with private cases.”
County Commissioner Scott Jenkins, who is one of three members of the new program’s oversight board, agreed it was time to move to full-time advocates.
“It all comes down to the theory that you have to have adequate representation,” Jenkins said. “It can’t just be someone coming in and pleading. This is no longer enough. They must be willing to sit down with people and vigorously defend their case in court.
A report published several years ago by the Sixth Amendment Center implicated Utah’s indigent defense system. And Weber County’s organizational approach to the task — involving the county attorney’s offense in supplying the contract defense team — has been called an area open to conflict of interest.
Jenkins said county prosecutors were willingly supportive of the new defender’s office. “Our prosecutors care about a good defense just as much as defenders do,” Jenkins said. “If the defense is not vigorous, the judge will overturn it.”
During planning discussions for the new entity, Jenkins said previous issues involving subcontracted attorneys were discussed, adding to the rationale for the change in structure. The most high-profile case was that of Samuel P. Newton, a former death penalty lawyer for Douglas Lovell who was awarded $250,000 in an out-of-court settlement last year. He had sued the county, alleging officials unfairly fired him after he publicly complained about sparse funding.
“We took a sock in the jaw because of that,” Jenkins said. “It was a black eye for the county.”
Richard Mauro, another member of the supervisory board, said Weber’s new approach will save taxpayers’ money and “create a high degree of expertise with qualified, full-time lawyers doing the work.”
Having dedicated attorneys also reduces potential conflicts of interest, said Mauro, who is the executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association, a nonprofit that has 100 full-time attorneys.
Although improvements are being considered, Retallick said the new lineup of defenders is being built from the ground up. For now, he will coordinate contract attorneys and oversee the location of the agency’s offices at the Weber Center. He said he hopes the current nine contract positions will eventually be rolled into the office as full-time county employees.
According to budget documents, the county budgeted $1.6 million for indigent advocacy in 2021, but the actual total was nearly $1.8 million with a few additions mid-year. For 2022, the budget totals over $2.3 million.
“We have to get on with it,” Jenkins said. “If you have business canceled, it will cost a lot more than that.”
Mauro said he hopes Operation Weber will also receive additional funding from the Utah Indigent Advocacy Commission, which was established several years ago to help counties improve their efforts.
For the current state fiscal year, which began last July 1, the commission awarded Weber County $397,000, including $293,000 for contract defenders. This total also funds highly experienced lawyers for homicides and other difficult first-degree criminal cases. The grant also provides $119,000 for office equipment, supplies and operating expenses.
Retallick said public defenders are making more money than they did when he started 26 years ago, but the caseload is also growing, further justifying a more robust approach to defending the public. destitute.
Jenkins added: “So many times when a defense attorney is independent, he turns and burns for all he is worth, getting everyone through as soon as he can so he can earn some the money. So we’re digging some new ground here, and I’m very happy with how we got out of the gate.