Oregon’s political leaders announced a formal workgroup Tuesday to address the monthslong shortage of public defenders that has gummed up criminal courts in the state and led to constitutional rights violations.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, will co-chair what lawmakers are calling the “Three Branch Workgroup.” House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, announced the group Tuesday.
“This is an emergency,” Rayfield said in a statement. “Oregonians are languishing in jail without access to legal representation, while public defenders have long been underpaid and overworked. The system is broken and lacks the opportunity for effective legislative oversight.”
The committee will bring together members of the state Legislature, the governor’s office and the judicial branch “to develop short-term and long-term solutions to reform the state’s public defense and public safety systems,” according to Rayfield.
Earlier this month, Oregon’s Chief Justice Martha Walters called on political leaders to come together to address the crisis.
Concerns about Oregon’s public defense system date back years, but deepened recently. Since at least November, the state has not been able to find enough public defenders to represent people charged with crimes when they cannot afford an attorney. In some cases, those people have been incarcerated without a lawyer. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees anyone charged with a crime the right to counsel.
In Oregon, supplying those attorneys falls to the Office of Public Defense Services, an independent state agency that’s part of the Oregon judicial branch. Oregon contracts out all of its public defense work at the trial level to nonprofits and private attorneys, instead of retaining public employees to do the work. A large part of OPDS’ job is to manage those contracts.
The crisis has been most acute in Multnomah County, but the counties of Washington, Marion and Lane have also been impacted by the shortage. With pandemic restrictions drastically slowing court functions, public defenders have accumulated more and more cases and clients, to the point many say they cannot ethically take on more. High caseloads have led to burnout, which has been compounded in some public defense firms by attorneys leaving.
“For far too long, the scales have been tipped against public defenders, making it difficult to ensure a fair and just public defense system,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement.
During the short legislative session, lawmakers approved $12.8 million to hire more public defenders in the four hardest hit counties. However, some public defense offices have said hiring has been slower than expected.
A report from the American Bar Association released in January found Oregon’s public defense system has less than one-third of the attorneys the state needs to adequately represent criminal defendants. That translates into a shortage of roughly 1,300 public defenders, according to the report.
Prozanski, who will co-chair the workgroup, told OPB in January the state was legally vulnerable and “primed for having a lawsuit” if the public defender crisis remained unaddressed.