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Panel OKs proposal to improve public defense for kids and teens

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, speaks during the March for Life at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019.
FILE - Senator Todd Weiler speaks at the Salt Lake City Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. A proposal seeking to make sure that children and teens across Utah have the same access to an attorney in juvenile court cases has cleared another hurdle at the Utah Capitol.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal seeking to provide an attorney for each child and teen facing criminal charges in Utah's juvenile court system has cleared another hurdle at the Utah Capitol.

A legislative panel unanimously approved the measure Friday, over concerns of some who said it goes too far in forcing lawyers to attend hearings for young clients even after they are sentenced.

In more populous counties like Salt Lake, many judges already appoint an attorney for each youth. But in more rural areas with fewer resources, children as young as 8 or 9 years old sometimes appear alone before a judge, said sponsor Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.

"Their parents can't stand up and speak for them because they're not licensed as attorneys," he told members of the House Judiciary Committee. "That is the status quo in Utah."

Under SB32, each child or teen in the juvenile system would automatically be assigned an attorney — a move Utah already requires for those facing felonies, but not lesser misdemeanors. The bill would allow youths to later forgo the defender and represent themselves, or their families could hire a different attorney, Weiler said. And if a court finds a family can pay and afford the legal bills, it will send an invoice much like a hospital would, he said.

If the already-overwhelmed public defenders aren't required to go to a hearing, Weiler said, he fears they may fail to spot potential "red flags" in write-ups on the child's progress and "the kids might fall through the cracks."

Kane County Attorney Rob Van Dyke sees it differently. He told the panel the measure would codify best practices that don't apply to review hearings after sentencing, or when a young person faces a relatively minor tobacco citation.

"We don't object to children having attorneys. We object to the state having to pay for it," he said.

Pam Vickrey, executive director of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, said youngsters can't be expected to represent themselves adequately in the proceedings, which can be extremely intimidating for them. Even at court dates following sentencing, they can sometimes be ordered to spend more time in custody, she said. "Those kids still need representation."

Craig Hall, R-West Valley City, said the issue is among the top 10 most important measures lawmakers will consider this year. He called it a "bill that we need to pass this session."

About 1,500 youths now face misdemeanor charges in Utah, according to the Utah Indigent Defense Commission. The additional cost of defending them under the measure would be about $725,000 per year.

The bill advances to the full House.