County receives grant to hire additional public defender, easing heavy caseload

ST. GEORGE — Washington County has received a grant from the state to hire a new public defense attorney to help alleviate the high caseload the county’s contracted public defenders are experiencing.

Washington County Courthouse, St. George, Utah, May 2015 | File photo by Mori Kessler. St. George News

“This will ease the pressures put on those (defenders) already here,” Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist said Tuesday just before the commission passed a resolution accepting the grant.

The $194,000 grant was awarded by the state’s Indigent Defense Commission and is the first of its kind to be given to the county, Washington County Deputy Attorney Eric Clarke said.

The Indigent Defense Commission began issuing grants about three years ago to particular counties that needed help with their own indigent defense funds. It has since begun awarding grants on a boarder basis.

“We’re hoping the grants become ongoing funds, because it would be tough to supplement that in the county budget,” Clarke said.

In addition to allowing for a new public defender to be contracted, the grant will be used to increase existing public defense contracts, as well as supplying $45,000 for defense resources.

A concern of the county and state overall is that a public defender’s high caseload can adversely impact their representation of an indigent client, whether that means not having the time to devote to the client’s case or not having adequate resources to do so.

Washington County Commission, St. George, Utah, July 16, 2019 | File photo by Mori Kessler. St. George News

Unlike the Washington County Attorney’s Office, which houses attorneys employed by the county, the county’s public defenders, currently nine in all, are contracted.

Public defenders are also paid a flat rate per contract, Clarke said. It doesn’t matter if the attorney defends five clients or 500; the contract pays the same.

Read more: County weighs in on local, state battle to improve public defender system

St. George News previously reported that a 2015 report by the Sixth Amendment Center put Utah among the worst states when it came to indigent defense, particularly with regard to funding.

The study prompted changes nationwide, Clarke previously told St. George News. In Utah, these changes have included how public defenders are selected and the establishment of an oversight committee that keeps track of public defender caseloads.

“With any growing community like ours, caseloads are going to be high,” Almquist said.

The $194,000 grant adds to the 5% increase in spending the County Commission added to the public defender fund in the county budget earlier this year.

St. George News reporter Cody Blowers contributed to this story.

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Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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