Oregon, and especially, Portland, have had a shortage of public defenders for years. An American Bar Association report last year found that Oregon has only 31% of the attorneys it needs. This means the state needs nearly 1,300 more public defenders.
The problem is now at a crisis level, in part, because of the soaring crime in cities like Portland. Indigent defendants are having to wait longer for their cases to go to trial. The public defenders who are still on the job are overwhelmed with their caseloads, and the defendants whose cases they are handling aren't getting the attention they deserve.
In other words, poor defendants aren't getting justice.
Judges across the state have been forced to dismiss hundreds of cases, many of them for felony crimes, such as assault and robbery.
The state tried addressing the problem by creating financial incentives for public defenders to take on more cases. Not only isn't it ethical, but it simply overwhelmed the public defenders even more. It also brought a lot of criticism to bear on the state.
This month, Shannon Wilson, executive director for the Public Defender of Marion County, asked the Marion County Circuit Court to withdraw public defenders from certain cases because of the overwhelming caseloads. This is a good thing.
If a defendant gets a poor defense because of an overwhelmed court-appointed attorney, there is cause for an appeal, which keeps the case moving through the system.
However, she also asked that the court stop appointing nonprofit defense firm lawyers to new cases and to dismiss the remaining charges for anyone who doesn't have an attorney. This not only won't fix the problem, it will probably make it worse by sending a message to criminals that they can get away with all types of criminal activity in the state.
Many have tried to blame the homeless for the rise in cases requiring a public defender. That's not accurate. Plenty of homeless are just trying to get by and not committing crimes to do it. The problem is those among the homeless who are willing to commit crimes, whether of a sound mind or not.
The public defender offices in the state should be prioritizing cases and assigning the most serious ones first to available attorneys. According to state court data, more than 700 people were awaiting representation and approximately 80 of them are waiting in jail.
If the time should come and a judge wants defendants released, the first ones to be released should be offenders with the lowest-priority cases, those accused of misdemeanors. Statewide, 18 people are in custody on misdemeanor charges and do not have lawyers, according to the court data.
The public defender offices should also be bringing in as many attorneys from public defense organizations as they can. Also, if county public defender offices have the problem under control in their area, they should be sending help to places where the problem remains.
The state legislature and state bar association should also make changes to the appropriate laws and policies to make a certain amount of public defense work annually a condition of maintaining a license to practice in the state.
The former ideas would help address the immediate problem, and the latter idea would help keep the problem from becoming a problem again.
What won't help the problem is continuing to release defendants without charging them. It sends a message to potential criminals that they are welcome in the state because they won't be prosecuted even if they are caught.
This crisis did not suddenly appear in Oregon. It has been building over the years as prosecutors and lawmakers have gone easy on criminals. The result is that the state continues to lose businesses and law-abiding residents and gain criminals.
Michael Letts is the Founder and CEO of In-Vest USA, a national grassroots nonprofit organization helping to re-fund police by contributing thousands of bulletproof vests for police forces through educational, public relations, sponsorship, and fundraising programs. He also has over 30 years of law enforcement experience. Read More Michael Letts reports — Here.
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