The state agency that oversees public defense in Oregon announced Monday it would resume paying district attorneys discovery fees after cutting off the payments early this year.
For years, prosecutors have charged public defenders for materials such as documents, recordings and other evidence relevant to a criminal case against people the public defenders represented.
The Office of Public Defense Services stopped paying prosecutors for material on indigent criminal defendants on Jan. 1.
“This was never appropriate or proper from its inception,” Steve Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, told OPB at the time. “There is no provision in Oregon law that allows district attorneys or the state to pass these costs on to indigent criminal defendants.”
The policy shift came in part because of changes made by lawmakers in 2021 as well as Singer, who took over the office in December.
Per Ramfjord, who chairs the Public Defense Services Commission that oversees OPDS, acknowledged the decision to not pay discovery unleashed controversy.
“For many people in the defense community, it is offensive that a defendant who has a right to counsel … is obligated to pay the prosecution for discovery,” he said during a public meeting. “It’s constitutionally offensive.”
In a letter sent Wednesday to the Office of Public Defense Services, some of the state’s top Democrats expressed concern the agency would no longer pay district attorneys to cover “the costs of providing mandatory discovery.”
The letter was signed by House Speaker Dan Rayfield and Senate President Peter Courtney, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward and Rep. Tawna Sanchez, the co-chairs of the joint budget committee.
The lawmakers asked the agency to reverse course.
“We believe that this decision is contrary to the Legislature’s intent to fund these costs,” lawmakers wrote. “Indigent defendants themselves do not incur any costs related to the reimbursement of discovery fees, as such costs are borne by the state’s General Fund. Historically, the Legislature has appropriated General Fund dollars to the Commission to reimburse district attorney offices and counties for the cost of discovery fees.”
The Office of Public Defense Services spends roughly $6 million every two years on the discovery items, according to staff.
The lawmakers stated this was a long-established policy, but agreed to consider changes during next year’s legislative session.
“At a time when all offices are struggling with mounting caseloads, and budgets are strapped, these funds are crucial for district attorney offices across the state to continue their duty to prosecute criminal cases while providing defendants with discovery,” Michael Wu, executive director for the Oregon District Attorneys Association said in a statement.
Editor’s note: Rep. Tawna Sanchez’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. OPB regrets the error.