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Multnomah County DA calls the lack of public defenders an 'urgent threat to public safety'

Nearly 300 criminal cases have been dismissed due to a lack of public defense attorneys.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Between February and October of 2022, 285 criminal court cases were dismissed in Multnomah County because of the lack of public defense attorneys. That large number prompted the county's district attorney to weigh in this week hoping to draw more attention to the crisis.

A report by the American Bar Association released in January found that Oregon has only 31% of the public defenders it needs.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said so many cases being dismissed sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability.

Mayor Ted Wheeler weighed in on the issue on the Lars Larson radio show on Tuesday. 

"There is no question in my mind that we need more prosecutorial capacity in the district attorney's office," Wheeler said. "There is no question in my mind that we need more public defenders so that we don't have cases merely dismissed."

About 2,428 felony hearings have been delayed this year between February and October, Schmidt said.

He said the courts are forced into the position to release defendants without a defense counsel. To show the scope of the crisis, his office will start publishing a list showing every case dismissed each week in Multnomah County because of the lack of defense counsel. 

Oregon's public defender system is the only one in the nation that relies entirely on contractors, like large nonprofit defense firms and smaller private defense attorneys that contract for cases and independent attorneys who can take cases at will. 

But some firms and private attorneys are periodically refusing to take new cases because of the workload, poor pay rates and late payments from the state.

"I don't accept any part of the criminal justice system throwing their hands in the air saying, 'we don't have enough people,'" Wheeler said. "Well, if you don't have enough people, then go out and recruit them, hire them. If you can't recruit them and hire them, then do something different."

In June, Oregon lawmakers approved $100 million for the troubled public defense system. 

Schmidt went on to say: "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. Moreover, from this day forward, my office will publish every case dismissed or set over as a result of this crisis weekly until it is resolved. The public must be empowered with this information to understand the scope of this crisis."

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