Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said on Monday his office would begin publishing a weekly list of cases that circuit court judges have dismissed due to a shortage of public defenders.
Since February, some 285 misdemeanor and felony cases have been dismissed so far by judges in Multnomah County because there wasn’t a defense lawyer available to appoint to the case.
“The public must be empowered with this information to understand the scope of this crisis,” Schmidt said in a statement.
He called the shortage of public defenders an urgent threat to public safety.
“This sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable and their harm will go unaddressed,” Schmidt said. “It also sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources.”
Across Oregon throughout much of the past year, a public defense crisis has left hundreds of people charged with crimes without a lawyer. On any given day dozens of defendants without attorneys are in custody. The U.S. Constitution requires the state to provide effective legal counsel to the people it charges with crimes if they cannot afford a defense attorney.
“Every day that this crisis persists presents an urgent and continuing threat to public safety,” Schmidt said. “Prosecutors in my office have and will continue to issue cases for prosecution and reissue cases that have been dismissed as soon as we are able. We refuse to turn our backs on victims simply because one pillar of our justice system is crumbling.”
Last month, civil rights attorneys sued the state again over the public defense shortage, after an initial case was dismissed. According to that lawsuit, the state has failed to provide attorneys, “in clear violation of basic standards of justice and long-settled state and federal law.”
Oregon lawmakers are also looking for possible solutions. In April, legislative leaders announced a working group that’s expected to introduce bills when lawmakers meet in Salem next year.
Cases dismissed in Multnomah County include low-level assaults, domestic violence, property crimes and firearm-related offenses, according to the district attorney’s office.