Pandemic pushes Oregon’s public defender system to the brink

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A post-pandemic glut of delayed cases has revealed shocking constitutional landmines affecting defendants and victims of crimes in Oregon, a state renowned for its progressive social justice.

An acute shortage of public defenders means that at any one time at least several hundred low-income defendants have no legal representation, sometimes in serious crime cases that could lock them up for years.

Judges dismissed nearly four dozen cases in the Portland area alone — including a domestic violence case with strangulation allegations — and threatened to scorn the state.


“We are overwhelmed. The pandemic exposes all the problems we have,” said Carl Macpherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, a large nonprofit public defender company in Portland. “It has become very clear that we are broken.”

Public defenders warned the system was on the brink of collapse before the pandemic, and some staged a strike in 2019. But lawmakers failed to act, and then COVID-19 closed the courts. Now the system “loops before our eyes,” said Kelly Simon, legal director of the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union.

The crisis in Oregon, while extreme, reflects a nationwide reckoning with indigent defense, as courts seek to address a pandemic backlog of criminal cases with public defense systems that have long been under -funded and understaffed. From New England to New Mexico to Wisconsin, states are struggling to keep public defender services running.

Maine this month earmarked nearly $1 million to hire that state’s first five public defenders, with a focus on rural counties, after relying entirely on contracts with private attorneys until ‘now.

In New Mexico, a recent report found the state was short of 600 full-time public defenders. In New Hampshire, where about 800 defendants were without attorneys, state lawmakers in March approved more than $2 million to raise the salaries of public defenders. And in Wisconsin, where the starting salary for public defenders is $27 an hour, there are 60 attorney positions short in the state.

“It’s America’s dirty little secret: Thousands of people in courtrooms across the country go to jail every day without speaking to a lawyer,” said Jon Mosher, deputy director of the Sixth Amendment. Non-profit center.

An American Bar Association report released in January found Oregon has 31% of the public defenders it needs. Every existing attorney would have to work more than 26 hours a weekday to cover the workload, the authors found.

” It’s horrible. I don’t want to mince words on this. I’m not going to make excuses for this,” said State Senator Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who co-chairs the state Legislature Ways and Means Committee. “That being said, we can’t make avocados out of thin air.”

For the victims, the situation is devastating and hurts the most vulnerable.

Cassie Trahan, co-founder and executive director of an Oregon nonprofit that works with teens and young adults who are victims of sex trafficking, said trust in the justice system is fading, especially in minority and immigrant communities. Victims no longer want to come forward when they see cases being thrown out or ending in weak plea bargains to relieve the pressure on the courts.

One such victim in an ongoing trafficking case “lives in constant fear of rejection”, Trahan said.

Prosecutors can secure a grand jury indictment when cases are dismissed for lack of a public defender and police will re-arrest the alleged perpetrator – but that’s small consolation for victims.

“In his mind, it’s like, ‘Now I’ve come out, now I’ve spoken against him and what if he leaves?'” Trahan said of the victim. “That’s what we see the most, especially in communities of color and groups that don’t trust the justice system anyway.”

The Legislative Assembly recently approved $12.8 million in one-time funding for the four hardest-hit counties, along with a series of legislative reforms. New contracts coming this summer will institute lower caps for lawyers. And lawmakers are withholding $100 million from the agency’s budget until they show good faith in numerous reforms, including restructuring, financial audits and performance measures.

A task force from the three branches of government will meet this month to begin tackling a “comprehensive and structural modernization” of the system.

Autumn Shreve, government relations manager for the state’s Office of Public Defense Services, said the pandemic has finally forced the hand of state lawmakers who haven’t scrutinized public defenders for nearly 20 years.

“It was a motley group of people trying to cover workloads year after year and because of that there were a lot of past issues,” she said.

Meanwhile, the situation in state courtrooms is dire.

Often, those who go without lawyers are charged with heinous crimes that come with heavy prison sentences if convicted, making it even more difficult to find qualified public defenders to handle such complex cases. And those who handle the torts are often young lawyers handling 100 or more cases at a time.

“You can’t keep everything in your head when you have so many customers at the same time. Even things like, you know, ‘What is your current advocacy offering?’ I can’t remember for 100 people. Or I don’t remember, ‘What exactly does the police report say?’ said Drew Flood, public defender at the Metropolitan Public Defender.

“It’s the scariest thing they’ve experienced in their lives,” he said.

Other public defender services, including private investigators and legal advisers, have also reached a breaking point.

Renardo Mitchell, who is imprisoned for attempted murder, chose to represent himself after saying he had not heard from his public defender for five months. The court-appointed legal adviser to help it hire expert witnesses and file motions died suddenly in February and has been without an attorney since.

Two years after his arrest, he still hasn’t seen the full discovery in his case, Mitchell, 37, said. His public private investigator – Mitchell’s only connection to his proceedings – recently had to ask the court for more paid hours to develop evidence for his defense.

“We are all innocent until proven guilty. Nothing has been proven yet – I haven’t been found guilty,” said Mitchell, who faces more than 22 years in prison if convicted. “Even if I did the things they allege, I’m still entitled to due process.”

Portland’s chief prosecutor has become a strong advocate for public defender reform for this very reason.

“The most important thing is that everyone has the right to an attorney, it’s a constitutional right,” Multnomah County Attorney Michael Schmidt said.

“It’s an ecosystem, like a coral reef. If you take away one aspect of this system, all the other aspects collapse.”

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Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis.; and Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire contributed to this report.

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Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus



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