The troubling anecdotes have been piling up in the Capitol: open judgeships in southern Oregon that almost no one is interested in filling; massive stretches of highway left completely unpatrolled; poor defendants being unconstitutionally churned through the justice system.
This year’s Oregon legislative session has been billed as an opportunity to find big money for health care and education, but in the first week of action, it’s been members of the criminal justice system making their case most strongly for more resources.
“Other shiny nickels come along and we lose our luster,” Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said Monday, making a case for the Legislature to double his patrol troopers. “This is hoping to keep us in the public eye, or at least the legislative eye, past today.”
The pleas, so far, have come from three entities very well acquainted with asking lawmakers for new resources when the session comes around, often with little result. But this year, with Gov. Kate Brown and members of the Democratic leadership highlighting their support, new money might well be on the way — if lawmakers can find it among an array of other big-ticket necessities.
More Highway Troopers
Hampton’s pitch for a larger patrol force would seem to have the most momentum. Brown committed to making more state police funding a priority when she rolled out her budget proposal in November.
The numbers the state police superintendent laid out for members of the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week were stark.
“I don’t know of another core government service where you could say, ‘We have half the people doing it [that] we did 40 to 50 years ago,” he said.
The number of state troopers patrolling the highways peaked in the late 1970s when the positions were tied to revenue from the state’s gas tax. In 1980, the year funding was disconnected from the tax, the OSP had 624 troopers and sergeants on the roads, Hampton said. Today, it has 381 — a partial consequence of balancing other priorities amid uncertain funding.
That amounts to eight patrol troopers for every 100,000 Oregonians, a ratio that Hampton says puts Oregon second-to-last in the nation, leading only Florida.
The fallout, he told lawmakers, includes large portions of the state where highways and interstates aren’t patrolled 24 hours a day, thousands of calls for service that a trooper doesn’t respond to, and state police offices shuttered around the state.
“This is my last best chance probably in my career to draw attention to our numbers and make a long-term fix,” Hampton said.
That fix could come via a bill submitted by Brown’s office. House Bill 2046 would order the state police to maintain a ratio of 15 officers for every 100,000 citizens by 2030. If passed — and then, crucially, funded by subsequent Legislatures — that could see trooper ranks increase to nearly 800 a decade from now.
“HB 2046 is a commitment by Gov. Brown and — she hopes — the legislative branch, to preserve this vision in future biennia,” said Brown spokeswoman Nikki Fisher.
The bill passed out of House Judiciary on Monday with lawmakers voting unanimously to recommend passage, and with support from the Oregon Department of Transportation and an array of justice groups. But a far bigger hurdle lies ahead when state number crunchers figure out precisely what the trooper increase would cost.
“As soon as we get the [estimate] I intend to work the bill,” House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, chair of the judiciary committee, said Monday. “Still waiting.”
Judges Want A Raise
Oregon judges had a similarly plaintive plea for judiciary committee members nearly a week earlier, when Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters showed up to ask for higher pay and more judges.
Judges have succeeded in getting $5,000 salary bumps from lawmakers in recent sessions, but their proposal this time around, House Bill 2238, would do far more.
The bill would ramp up judicial salaries by between 9.8 and 12.5 percent, depending on which court a judge sat on. Then in subsequent years, it would set judge’s salaries as a percentage of what federal trial judges make (currently $208,000). The Oregon Supreme Court’s chief justice would make 90 percent of that amount, with rates gradually decreasing for other judges on the supreme court, court of appeals, and circuit court levels.
For example, Oregon circuit court judges today make $142,136. Under HB 2238, their pay would be bumped up to $156,000 in the next two years. Then in 2021, it would move to 80 percent of a federal judge’s salary, or about $166,000 a year.
Walters, the chief justice, would see her salary increase something like $30,000 a year by 2021.
“I want to personally thank you for the improvements that you’ve made to our judicial compensation in past years,” she told lawmakers. “They’ve been extremely important, but they haven’t fixed the problem and it continues to be a pressing issue.”
According to the National Center for State Courts, Oregon trial court judges receive some of the lowest pay in the nation — 46th, if the cost of living is figured in. In terms of straight pay, Oregon judges’ salaries rank between 31st and 38th highest in the nation, depending on the court they sit on.
Walters and others say that’s created an inability to attract talented lawyers to open judgeships.
Misha Isaak, general counsel to the governor, told of a recent situation where a judgeship opened in Josephine County and only two people applied to fill it. Then, when another position opened up a month ago, just three people applied — including one who’d applied for the previous vacancy.
“As of last month, there were 76 members of the bar in Josephine County,” Isaak testified, “and yet apparently only three people right now are willing to take a pay cut to become a judge.”
State estimates suggest the raises judges are pushing for would cost $7.5 million in the next two-year budget cycle and $13.1 million in the budget after that. But that might account for the total cost. When judges made a case for raises in 2017, The Register-Guard reported that the pay bumps could also result in outsize increases in their benefits under the state’s Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS.
Judges are also pushing a separate bill that would add 14 new judges in courts around the state. Both bills remain in committee.
Oregon’s Troubled Public Defense System
For years, the state’s public defenders have pressed for higher pay that would bring them more in line with the county prosecutors they face in court. This year, they’re pushing for far larger changes.
After a sweeping report found that Oregon’s system for providing public defense might violate the U.S. Constitution, public defenders are hoping lawmakers will reimagine that system altogether.
Oregon currently contracts for nearly 100 percent of the public defense services employed statewide — a marked difference from states that employ their own public defense attorneys. But what makes Oregon’s system so concerning, a report from the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center recently found, is that it pays for those services by shelling out a flat fee for every case a contractor takes.
That creates a system where lawyers have an incentive to take on as many cases as possible, while not necessarily looking out for their indigent clients’ best interests, the Sixth Amendment Center found. Similar findings in other states have led to lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups — a step that’s currently being mulled in Oregon.
“Your state should follow the lead of other states that have recently banned. … these fixed-fee contracts,” the group’s executive director, David Carroll, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Added to Oregon’s troubles is a weak oversight scheme that doesn’t allow the agency that contracts for services, the Office of Public Defense Services, any real insight into who is handling cases or how they are spending the state’s money.
“The thing that really stunned us probably the most is you can’t say who’s providing representation to whom for how much right now,” Carroll said. “That’s stunning for a government entity.”
Lane Borg, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, says he’s not sure how far the Legislature might get in righting the ship this session. At a minimum, he’s hoping for a mandate to both improve transparency in the public defense system and re-work the pay structure to something more suitable.
But Borg is also not ruling out larger changes — for instance, the creation of a new state office that employs its own public defenders rather than contracts out for services. And while there’s currently no price tag on any reforms, he acknowledges the implication is that, when it’s all over, Oregon public defenders will enjoy better pay.
“The question is: how quickly can we bring about change?” Borg said.