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Oregon faces major public defender crisis, case dismissals

Oregon faces a dire shortage of public defenders and as a result, nearly three dozen criminal cases have been dismissed in Portland in recent weeks.
Credit: KGW
Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters has sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders asking for a summit to address a crippling shortage of public defenders that's led to the dismissal of dozens of criminal cases and a huge court backlog.

Because of pandemic court closures, public defenders face a tremendous backlog of cases and aren’t taking new clients. Cases can’t be heard unless the defendant has an attorney and several hundred people are currently in custody statewide without representation, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Thirty-five cases in Multnomah County, which is home to Portland, have been dismissed by judges over prosecutors' objections because of the public defender shortage, OPB said, citing a memo.

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Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said in an opinion piece published in The Oregonian/OregonLive last month that the justice system is “nearing the point of breakage" because of the public defender shortage and the departure of overworked prosecutors.

Schmidt said a judge dismissed three cases in March, including a domestic violence case that included allegations of strangulation, because the defendants lacked an attorney. More than 150 felony cases in the Portland area lack a public defender and can't be prosecuted, he wrote.

In nearby Washington County, 11 people in custody are without an attorney, court staff told OPB this week. In Multnomah County, more than 260 people are without an attorney. Of those, 22 are in custody.

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In Oregon, public defense is run through the Office of Public Defense Services, which secures and pays contracts to public defense firms.

Walters, the Supreme Court justice, is responsible for appointing the commission members who hire and oversee the agency’s executive director.

State lawmakers last month allocated $12.8 million in additional funds to add public defenders and support staff to the hardest-hit counties, including Multnomah, Washington, Lane and Marion. But Walters said in her letter that “providers have found it more difficult than anticipated to do that hiring and are also facing the unanticipated loss of experienced counsel" and state leaders need to urgently address the “immediate crisis.”

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Leading up to the summit, Walters said she’ll host a series of meetings with prosecutors, judges and public defenders starting next week. Her first meeting will be next week in Multnomah County where, she noted, a lack of staffing at the sheriff’s office has made it challenging to assist with attorney-client visits “critical to case resolution,” as well as transporting people in custody to court hearings.

“The current crisis is having a real impact on defendants who have a constitutional right to counsel, on courts’ ability to resolve cases, on the safety of our communities,” Walters wrote.

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