When Rex Iverson did not have money to bail himself out of jail, or to pay on a $2,376.92 bill he had with the Tremonton City Ambulance service, he was detained in the Box Elder County Jail in northern Utah. An attempt to garnish his wages was unsuccessful, according to city treasurer Sharri Oyler, because Iverson was not employed at the time. On January 23, the 45-year-old Iverson was found dead in his cell. He was a resident of Bear River UT.
According to Elder County Chief Deputy Sheriff Dale Ward, “We go to great lengths to never arrest anybody on these warrants.” He told the Ogden Standard-Examiner, “The reason we do that is we don’t want to run a debtors’ prison. There is no reason for someone to be rotting in jail on a bad debt.”
John Daniels of the Libertas Institute
expressed outrage. “How can you get blood out of a turnip?” Daniels added, “A person should be obliged to pay, but putting him in jail doesn’t solve the problem.”
Utah has what are called “justice courts” that adjudicate cases where citizens have been arrested and jailed for owing money to government agencies. Over the last three years, 13 persons have been jailed in circumstances similar to Iverson’s.
Debtors' prisons were once quite common in the United States, but were formally outlawed more than a century ago. Iverson's death has re-focused attention on Utah's "justice courts," which were denounced by an October 2015 report issued by the Sixth Amendment Center. The Free Though Project, an advocacy group, characterized Utah’s justice courts as existing to “monetize misery, rather than to carry out due process.”
The judges on these courts are appointed by a six-member panel. Applicants need not have a law degree or previous legal experience to sever on the justice court. Any city resident with a GED can apply. According to the Sixth Amendment Center
, over 62 percent of defendants statewide "are processed through Utah's justice courts without a lawyer." The group says that this may constitute an "actual denial of counsel" in violation of constitutional guarantees.
According to the Sixth Amendment Center, "defendants were arraigned and subsequently sentenced ... to jail time or suspended sentences without any defense attorney present" by justice courts in every Utah jurisdiction except for Salt Lake City and County. The report said, "it is the practice of many justice courts to have prosecutors meet with unrepresented defendants to attempt to resolve the case prior to the defendant appearing before the judge. In others, the opportunity to meet with the prosecution is offered as though it is a chance to consult with an attorney who is looking out for the defendant's interests."
The Sixth Amendment Center said that these justice courts barely fit the definition of courts. "In many justice courts there are no prosecutors present and there are also no defense attorneys present. This leaves justice court judges responsible for all sides of the adjudicative process. Having judges judging, negotiating pleas, and advising defendants all at once creates a criminal process that is, in a word, non-adversarial."
No transcripts are kept of the proceedings because the justice courts are not courts of record. In addition, there is no appeal possible for the justice courts’ decisions. Defendants may, however, file a de novo review in a district court. Many of those brought before these justice courts are indigent and unable to pay the assessed fines or for legal counsel.
"In 2013, there were 79,730 total misdemeanors and misdemeanor DUI cases head in all justice courts statewide," said the Sixth Amendment Center report. "Only 711 of such cases were reviewed de novo in all district courts combined (an appellate rate of 0.89 %). Further still, a de novo review can never change the underlying systemic flaws that resulted in the denial of the right to counsel in the first place."
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