IRON COUNTY — The Iron County Commission met Monday morning for a regularly scheduled meeting where they discussed the possible impacts of how Senate Bill 167 – Juvenile Offender Amendments would affect the county’s defense attorneys since becoming law.
Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill into law on March 30, amending Utah’s policy on how juvenile offenders go about the juvenile court process when charged with a crime.
Specifically, the commissioners wanted to discuss Section 7 of the bill, which states that minors facing a felony level offense may not waive the counsel of a defense attorney.
At the meeting, Commission Chair Dale Brinkerhoff read a letter from 5th District Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Higbee, who wrote to express his concern about a possible increase in juvenile caseloads since the bill’s passing.
Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett spoke at the meeting, and said he had met with Higbee and discussed the new law, and wanted to speak with the commissioners about what this change could mean for both juvenile offenders and public defenders.
Prior to the bill, Garrett said, when a juvenile defendant first showed up to their arraignment, they would be accompanied by their parents or another guardian. They could then make the decision to either admit to or deny the criminal charges they were facing at that time, and choose to waive the right to a defense attorney and simply handle the situation on their own.
“One way to look at it,” Garrett said, “is that the parents and the child are kind of in charge of deciding how it’s going to go down. Lots of times, the parents want them to take responsibility … .”
In juvenile court, Garrett said, the parents can sometimes want their child to accept responsibility for the crime and receive a swift punishment. Now, that process may begin to slowly go away.
According to the bill, the minor may not waive counsel unless they have had a “meaningful opportunity” to consult with a defense attorney. If the minor still wishes to waive counsel, the court takes the minor’s circumstances into consideration and ensures they understand the consequences of proceeding without counsel.
With the number of juveniles requiring lawyers increasing, the commissioners asked Garrett if he thought it would mean a need for additional manpower.
“I suppose,” Garrett said, “the effect of it would be that the attorneys would be involved in more cases than they otherwise would be involved in.”
Currently, Garrett said, there is not an overwhelming amount of delinquency cases and he said he is unsure of whether further manpower for public defenders would be required.
Rather than risk jumping the gun without any exact figures to go on, Commissioner David Miller said he would like to know how the number of cases and workload have affected the public defenders, and adjust the needs accordingly from there.
“We need to find out exactly what we are experiencing rather than just guessing,” Miller said.
Miller made a motion to request the information needed to make a better-informed decision, and also that the commission take no action until that information is received.
After the meeting, Miller said he hopes to have the information requested back as soon as possible so the commission can make a well-informed decision.
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