Gov. Cox Declares March 18 Utah Public Defense Day

(SALT LAKE CITY, UT) Gov. Spencer Cox’s commitment to ensure that "all Utahns have equal access to justice," is reflected in his declaration of March 18th as Public Defense Day. This is a tribute to the momentous 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, holding that the 6th Amendment right to counsel applied to the states, ensuring poor defendants facing criminal charges have a constitutional right to the assistance of defense counsel at public expense. 

“The fundamental principles of equality and fairness cannot be fully realized under our justice systems without a well-resourced public defense system and prompt access to effective assistance of counsel,” Governor Cox’s declaration states. 

In Utah, over 80% of adult criminal defendants and 100% of minors facing juvenile court proceedings are eligible for court-appointed public defenders. Utah also extends this right to indigent individuals facing the termination of their parental rights, and to all of these people appealing a conviction or termination order to Utah’s appellate courts. Public defenders are the attorneys representing these individuals in over 111,000 cases in Utah annually. 

Utah has made significant strides in improving public defense services around the state. This year, the legislature appropriated an additional $2 million to the Indigent Defense Commission (IDC) to improve appellate defense representation across counties and increase grants to supplement local governments’ improvements to their trial-level services. 

Public defenders have far-reaching impacts on systems and on individuals’ lives. Utah’s defenders fight daily in Utah courts (and on Webex) for clients’ rights, helping to avoid unnecessary detention, inappropriate guilty pleas, wrongful convictions, needless separation of families, and avoid these long-lasting impacts to employment, education, housing, and many other rights and opportunities. 

Public defenders are also important voices in criminal justice reform, especially around mental and behavioral health services, reducing recidivism, and confronting issues of disproportionate minority impacts and poverty in Utah’s criminal justice system. Without public defenders, there would be no equal justice or due process for the majority of people in the system. As Governor Cox stated in the declaration, “[T]he public defense function must be considered an equal and valued partner in the criminal justice system in Utah.” 

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