Sanpete taxpayers foot $200K bill
for lawyers for inmates
By Suzanne Dean
MANTI—What started as a “palatable trade” between the state of Utah and Sanpete County for providing public defenders for Gunnison prison inmates has become a bad deal for the county with an unbearable price tag, says Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels.
Over several years, the caseload of prisoners committing crimes in prison has gone from about a dozen per year to a dozen per month, Daniels says.
Not only does the county cover the cost of all those prosecutions, but between 2017 and 2019, Sanpete County was required to reimburse the state $196,770, out of taxpayer funds, for public defenders for the inmates.
“It makes no logical sense to me, and every legislator I’ve talked to agrees,” Daniels says. “So now it’s just a matter of getting legislation passed that fixes it…All three county commissioners agreed that this (legislation) is something that needs to happen.”
To understand the present situation, you have to go back in time, Daniels says. More than 30 years ago, when Utah was looking for a site for a second state prison, the state and Sanpete County essentially made an oral agreement.
As Daniels puts it, “The state said, ‘We’ll agree to locate this prison…in Gunnison, along with all the jobs that come with it, but you’re going to have to bear the cost of both prosecution and defense” of any inmates who commit crimes in the prison.
There was an important caveat: CUCF was to be a minimum-security prison. Daniels says minimum-security prisoners commit very few crimes in prison.
For decades, he says, a handful of inmate cases came into the county attorney’s office each year, “certainly manageable within the existing workload…, and manageable from a fiscal perspective of having to pay for the criminal defense of those in prison.”
What Daniels describes as some “twists and turns” occurred in the mid-1990s. Troy Kell, an inmate and self-declared white supremacist who had been placed in CUCF as part of a prison-exchange with Nevada, brutally murdered another inmate. Kell stabbed the other inmate 67 times. He was sentenced to death and is still on death row.
Because paying for public defenders for Kell through all his appeals was beyond the means of Sanpete County, or most any county, the state set up what is called the Capital Defense Fund. All counties contribute to the fund, and the fund covers defense costs in all death-penalty cases.
At the same time the state also set up something called the Indigent Defense Fund and deposited $1 million into the fund. The Indigent Defense Fund covers public defender costs for all other inmate cases—from other murders to drug distribution.
However, the responsibility for paying attorneys assigned to represent inmates remained with Salt Lake and Sanpete Counties, the two counties that have prisons.
When an attorney represents an inmate from the Utah State Prison or from CUCF, the attorney bills the state. The state pays the bill out of the $1 million in the Indigent Defense Fund. When the fund drops to a certain level, the state bills the counties for the amounts paid out of the fund. Sanpete County gets billed for payouts to lawyers who represented CUCF inmates. Salt Lake County has to reimburse what the fund has paid out for Utah State Prison inmates.
“We get a bill,” Daniels says. “We get an invoice from the state saying, ‘Replenish this.’” The $196,000-plus that Sanpete County paid over two years represents payments on just such invoices.
According to Daniels, three or four years ago, the Utah Department of Corrections (UDC) started making policy changes that resulted in much more serious offenders being assigned to CUCF than had been housed there in the past.
“They started sending…more violent guys, guys who were convicted of murder, rape, violent crimes…, guys with a history of administrative problems,” he says.
Suddenly, county attorneys noticed a spike in cases, Daniels says. “Instead of 12 cases a year, we were getting 12 cases a month, and they were violent assaults.”
When different types of inmates started being mixed together during recreation periods at the prison, the caseload spiked even more, he says. And it has continued to grow.
The case that “got the veins popping in my neck,” Daniels says, occurred in August, 2019 when two CUCF inmates, both serving life sentences for murder, beat a guard “within an inch of his life.” Seven months later, the guard has not returned to work.
Daniels maintains that when the state requires Sanpete County taxpayers to pay all the legal costs for such individuals, for people who have never lived in the county other than at CUCF, it is breaching the oral contract it made when the prison was built.
When UDC started placing serious offenders at CUCF, rather than keeping the facility minimum-security, “they changed the terms of the contract” and under contract law, “when one party breaches it, the contract is null and void.”
Daniels sees three possible solutions:
One would be for UDC to return the Gunnison prison to a minimum-security facility.
Another option would be to have the Utah Attorney General’s Office take over prosecution of inmate cases and have the state pay defense costs with no reimbursement. That is how child welfare cases are currently handled. Assistant attorneys general based in counties around the state prosecute the cases.
“That honestly is the cleanest and easiest way, I think,” Daniels says. “It’s much preferable to have the state take it over entirely.”
A third alternative would be to have all counties contribute to an inmate defense fund based on a formula, Daniels said. The basis could be possible county of origin of inmates receiving public defender services.
Daniels says he and the Sanpete County commissioners have been working on the inmate defense issue for two years. He considered trying to get a bill to change the system introduced in the 2020 legislative session but decided to spend another year gathering support.
“I want to be sure we have all our ducks in a row,” he says, so when the bill is introduced it’s assured of passage.