Oregon lawmakers consider bill to overhaul public defense system

By Tony Schick (OPB)
April 3, 2023 12 p.m.

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill to overhaul the state’s long-troubled public defense system.

The state has too few attorneys to represent everyone charged with a crime, leaving many people without the adequate legal counsel they are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. That includes thousands of people charged with crimes who have no defense attorney.


Senate Bill 337 would create a new stable of public defense attorneys as state employees and create new methods and oversight for how the state contracts out the rest of its caseloads. It is the latest of several attempts in recent years to address problems in Oregon’s public defense system.

“Those of us who have worked as public defenders have known for a long time that the system is broken. It’s under-resourced. Case loads are too high. Pay is too low,” Jessica Kampfe, director of the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, told lawmakers in a hearing Thursday.

Oregon is currently the only state that relies entirely on contracts with private attorneys to defend people who are charged with a crime and can’t afford lawyers. A 2019 report from the nonpartisan nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, commissioned by the state Legislature, found Oregon’s system was so structurally flawed that it cannot guarantee clients are getting the defense they’re owed.


“This is a systemic failure,” Kampfe said.

Senate Bill 337 would revamp Oregon’s Public Defense Commission, moving it from the judicial branch into the executive. It would also diversify the makeup of the commission and expand oversight of it to include all three branches of government.

The bill would direct public defense commission to hire its own public defenders, setting a target for covering 20% of all public defense cases by 2031 and 30% by 2035.

The bill would still allow the commission to contract with independent attorneys or nonprofit firms dedicated to public defense. It would end the use of public defense contracts issued to business consortia made up of private attorneys.

Several attorneys who work for such consortia submitted testimony opposing the bill, each noting that they have been an essential part of keeping the state’s courts functioning and provide 60% of all public defense in the state.

The bill is the result of a “three-branch workgroup” that was charged last year with addressing the state’s public defense crisis. State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, chaired the workgroup. Prozanski also chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary, where the bill is scheduled for a work session on Monday.

In testimony Thursday, Evans said more money and more lawyers would be needed beyond Senate Bill 337, but the state first needed to change its method of delivering public defense services.

“As long as we still have the same structure and system, I don’t think the taxpayers are going to stand for it,” Evans said. “And I know that there’s not an appetite — at least on my side of the building — for anything but a comprehensive approach forward.”