The largest public defense nonprofit in Oregon — Metropolitan Public Defender — has temporarily stopped taking misdemeanor cases, OPB has learned.
Nearly 200 cases will need to be redirected to private attorneys, as well as those who have contracts with the state, according to Lane Borg, executive director of the state’s Office of Public Defense Services.
Attorneys from surrounding counties may also be brought in to help share the caseload for the next three to five weeks.
“While this is emblematic of the current problem in public defense, this particular event is not unprecedented,” Borg said.
Metropolitan Public Defender stopped taking cases May 24 because two of the seven attorneys in the misdemeanor trial unit left.
“In the span of two weeks, we lost two attorneys from the unit that we couldn’t replace,” said Carl Macpherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender. “And we had the prospect of losing a third attorney due to excessive caseloads.”
The two lawyers had about 340 open cases between them, which had to be absorbed by the remaining four attorneys and the unit’s supervisor, Macpherson said.
It’s the latest in a string of departures.
In the last 18 months, 25 attorneys have left the nonprofit legal firm. Macpherson said they’re leaving because of excessive caseloads, not enough training, low pay and high stress.
“Ultimately, most of the attorneys that leave feel they cannot completely represent their clients to the best of their ability because the system is under-resourced and overwhelmed,” Macpherson said.
In redirecting misdemeanors, Metropolitan Public Defender is exposing the vulnerabilities in the state’s public defense system. At the trial level, Oregon relies entirely on contract attorneys for public defense.
A bill in the Legislature — HB 3145 — could bring changes, in part by hiring upwards of 900 public defenders and support staff as state employees.
The legislation passed the House Judiciary Committee in April by a vote of 10-1. It’s now in the Legislature’s budget committee.
While lawmakers have signaled support, it’s not clear whether the bill will get funded. The Office of Public Defense Services has asked for $50 million. House Speaker Tina Kotek countered that request by asking what the agency could do with $20 to $25 million.
Macpherson said the fact his office had to divert cases is indicative of the larger problem facing public defense across the state.
“I am concerned about the future of public defense in the state of Oregon if the bill isn’t passed and funded,” he said. “I think it will not be an anomaly and become much more common.”