First District Courthouse, Logan

CACHE COUNTY – The Cache County Public Defender’s Office is experiencing a shortage of attorneys and Managing Defender Mike McGinnis told the Cache County Council that it’s no joke at their regular meeting on Tuesday evening.

“This is a need, not a want,” he emphasized.

Council members responded to that shortage by increasing the compensation for contract lawyers from $6,500 per month to $8,500 per month.

McGinnis said that amount will more adequately compensate attorneys providing counsel to indigent defendants and allow McGinnis to attract new hires.

McGinnis explained that there is a national shortage of attorneys due to fewer graduates from law schools; salary and funding issues; and case backlogs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our public defenders have to be seasoned attorneys who have handled criminal cases before,” he added, “because we’re going to hand somebody 200 cases and say: ‘Go for it.’

“There’s no oversight of how the cases are handled and we don’t have the structure to develop attorneys right out of law school.”

McGinnis said that increasing the compensation for contract attorneys is just a short-term solution. Ultimately, he would like to see the Public Defenders’ Office restructured to resemble the county attorneys’ office.

County Attorney John Luthy voiced support for that suggestion. Luthy said his staff are all county employees, with office expenses paid by the county.

But McGinnis said that his contract attorneys have to bear the cost of setting up a private practice, support staff and other expenses out-of-pocket. That makes joining the county’s public defender staff much less attractive to potential hires.

It’s a fairness issue,” Luthy explained.

Ideally, McGinnis said, being a public defender should be part-time work, allowing an attorney to accept other cases to supplement his or her income.

“But we’re working 60 to 70 hours a week just to keep up with the case load,” he said.

“We’re a nation of laws …” said Council Vice Chair Paul R. Borup, in support of McGinnis’ request. “I’ve got a reputation of being a budget hawk. But the government has some prescribed roles …

“This is a hugely important thing. We should make sure that before we go out and do other things, we take care of what government should actually be doing. Things like roads and law enforcement and part of that is public defense.”

The members of the Cache County Council voted unanimously to approve the monthly compensation increase for the Public Defenders’ Office.

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