Friday, June 30, 2023

Oregon lawmakers look to avert constitutional crisis, increase funding for public defenders

Oregon lawmakers have assembled a $96 million plan to tackle the state’s shortage of public defenders as hundreds of Oregonians sit in jail facing criminal charges without attorneys to represent them, reported the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

A constitutional crisis lies at the heart of the problem: People facing criminal charges have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. They also have the right to a speedy trial. Yet 326 Oregonians lack representation while in jail awaiting trial on murder charges and other felonies because there aren’t enough public defenders to represent them, state data shows.

To address the crisis, lawmakers have a multi-pronged approach, which includes money to boost pay for public defenders, hire more attorneys and allow the state to dispatch attorneys to high-need regions. The Senate and House on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 337, which would put that plan into motion. The Senate passed the measure with a 17-8 vote, and the House passed with a 34-16 vote, both along party lines with Republicans opposed.

The proposal now goes to Gov. Tina Kotek.

The public defender crisis in Oregon is acute: The state has about 600 contracted full-time public defense attorneys, according to a 2022 report by the American Bar Association. That report found Oregon needs nearly 1,300 more. 

“Oregonians deserve justice, which isn’t possible if cases are thrown out due to lack of attorneys or defendants are forced to sit in jail for far too long without counsel,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Prozanski led a workgroup with input on the changes, which he called “meaningful reforms.”

But Michael Rees, a public defender for 22 years, said he is skeptical and disappointed with the results. Rees, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Public Defenders Local 3668, works alongside about 80 attorneys in the Metropolitan Public Defender law firm, which serves defendants in the Portland area.

Specifically, he notes the bill was changed and stripped out language for public defenders’ compensation to be comparable to what prosecutors receive.

“This tells us that the state of Oregon is not committed to indigent defense,” Rees told the Capital Chronicle. “They’re still trying to get indigent defense for the lowest dollar that they can, and the market has said that doesn’t work.”

The Oregon Public Defense Services Commission, a state agency, contracts with public defense providers throughout Oregon, including the Metropolitan Public Defender. Most attorneys who handle trial-level cases do so through state contracts, but state employees and attorneys do oversee appellate-level work. 

The state has a patchwork of public defender providers, including nonprofit organizations and private law firms. Public defender organizations face high caseloads and turnover, as attorneys often leave for more lucrative opportunities. 

Public defender changes

·         The plan approved by the Legislature would do the following: 
·         Require the presiding judge in each of Oregon’s 27 judicial districts to prepare a plan by Sept. 1 to address the crisis of unrepresented defendants. 
·         Create teams to strategically put public defenders into court systems with the most severe need.
·         Update the model for the employment of public defenders – including establishing a trial division within the commission that directly hires attorneys. The trial-level division would start initially with 17 attorneys and support staff but have a long-term mandate to expand.
·         Increase funding for training, compensation and contracting to help recruit and retain employees. 
·         Move oversight of the state commission from the judicial branch to the executive branch. This would make the agency accountable to the governor rather than the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, which supporters say would increase transparency and oversight. 

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