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How a good deal became a bad deal for defending inmates charged with crimes

 

4-16-2020

 

Sometimes units of government, or even individuals, enter into an agreement that works for both at the time. Then things change and the agreement becomes a bad deal for one, the other or both..

That’s what has happened with an agreement forged 30 years ago between Sanpete County and the State of Utah for providing public defenders for Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) inmates charged with committing crimes in prison.

When CUCF opened in the 1980s as a minimum-security prison, the Sanpete County Attorney’s Office agreed to prosecute inmate cases. And the county commission agreed to pay for public defenders for the inmates, just as the county pays for the defense of non-incarcerated but indigent residents charged with crimes.

What did Sanpete County get for paying for CUCF inmate defense? We got the prison itself and all the associated jobs. And the number of jobs has grown steadily over the years.

For many years, the prison stayed minimum-security, so there were few crimes and little demand for prosecution or defense services.

Things started to change during the infamous Troy Kell murder case in the mid-1990s. Kell, a CUCF inmate, killed a fellow inmate by stabbing him 67 times. He received the death penalty and is still on death row.

The state realized a small county like Sanpete could not afford the costs of defending someone through all the appeals associated with the death penalty. So the state helped set up an insurance fund, with all 29 Utah counties contributing, to cover the full cost of the defense for all capital murder cases, prisoner or not. The insurance fund has worked well.

At the same time as the Kell case, the state considered the cost of providing defense attorneys for prison inmates charged with non-capital crimes.

The state started a defense fund and deposited $1 million into the fund. That protected Sanpete County and Salt Lake County, the two counties that have prisons, from sudden inmate defense bills that were bigger than they could cover. When a defense attorney submitted a bill, the state paid it.

The rub was that when the fund dropped down to a specified level, the state billed the two counties enough to bring the fund back up to $1 million. Sanpete County and Salt Lake County had to pony up merely because the prisons were located in those counties.

In the past 3-5 years, another premise underlying the 30-year-old agreement changed. CUCF has ceased to be a minimum-security prison. The Utah Department of Corrections is placing many violent inmates there. The number and seriousness of inmate crimes has risen dramatically.

The result is that in the past three years, Sanpete County has been billed, and has paid, more than $200,000 out of local taxpayer funds to reimburse the inmate defense fund. That’s a lot of money for a poor county to pay in behalf of people who have never lived here except at CUCF.

As Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels puts it, “It makes no logical sense to me.”

It’s time for Sanpete County and the state to call off the deal from the 1980s. If possible, the injustice to Sanpete and Salt Lake counties should be corrected through administrative action. If undoing the deal requires legislation, legislators representing Sanpete County should start pushing a fix through the Legislature.

In financial terms, it’s past time for (a) all counties to share the costs of the prosecution and the defense of inmates charged with crimes, or (b) for the state to take over those costs entirely.