Oregon lawmakers put $96 million toward public defender crisis

More than 300 people sit in county jails without representation as lawmakers put money toward more public defenders and better pay

By: - June 22, 2023 1:19 pm

Oregon’s lack of public defenders can mean longer jail times for some suspects. (Getty Images)

Oregon lawmakers have assembled a $96 million plan to tackle the state’s shortage of public defenders as hundreds of Oregonians sit in jail facing criminal charges without attorneys to represent them.

A constitutional crisis lies at the heart of the problem: People facing criminal charges have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. They also have the right to a speedy trial. Yet 326 Oregonians lack representation while in jail awaiting trial on murder charges and other felonies because there aren’t enough public defenders to represent them, state data shows.

To address the crisis, lawmakers have a multi-pronged approach, which includes money to boost pay for public defenders, hire more attorneys and allow the state to dispatch attorneys to high-need regions. The Senate and House on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 337, which would put that plan into motion. The Senate passed the measure with a 17-8 vote, and the House passed with a 34-16 vote, both along party lines with Republicans opposed.

The proposal now goes to Gov. Tina Kotek.

The public defender crisis in Oregon is acute: The state has about 600 contracted full-time public defense attorneys, according to a 2022 report by the American Bar Association. That report found Oregon needs nearly 1,300 more. 

“Oregonians deserve justice, which isn’t possible if cases are thrown out due to lack of attorneys or defendants are forced to sit in jail for far too long without counsel,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Prozanski led a workgroup with input on the changes, which he called “meaningful reforms.”

But Michael Rees, a public defender for 22 years, said he is skeptical and disappointed with the results. Rees, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Public Defenders Local 3668, works alongside about 80 attorneys in the Metropolitan Public Defender law firm, which serves defendants in the Portland area.

Specifically, he notes the bill was changed and stripped out language for public defenders’ compensation to be comparable to what prosecutors receive.

“This tells us that the state of Oregon is not committed to indigent defense,” Rees told the Capital Chronicle. “They’re still trying to get indigent defense for the lowest dollar that they can, and the market has said that doesn’t work.”

The Oregon Public Defense Services Commission, a state agency, contracts with public defense providers throughout Oregon, including the Metropolitan Public Defender. Most attorneys who handle trial-level cases do so through state contracts, but state employees and attorneys do oversee appellate-level work. 

The state has a patchwork of public defender providers, including nonprofit organizations and private law firms. Public defender organizations face high caseloads and turnover, as attorneys often leave for more lucrative opportunities. 

Public defender changes

The plan approved by the Legislature  would do the following: 

  • Require the presiding judge in each of Oregon’s 27 judicial districts to prepare a plan by Sept. 1 to address the crisis of unrepresented defendants. 
  • Create teams to strategically put public defenders into court systems with the most severe need.
  • Update the model for the employment of public defenders – including establishing a trial division within the commission that directly hires attorneys. The trial-level division would start initially with 17 attorneys and support staff but have a long-term mandate to expand.
  • Increase funding for training, compensation and contracting to help recruit and retain employees. 
  • Move oversight of the state commission from the judicial branch to the executive branch. This would make the agency accountable to the governor rather than the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, which supporters say would increase transparency and oversight.

Long-term outlook

Supporters described those changes as a starting point.  The bill also would require long-term planning, including salary studies to calculate hourly pay rates. And it would gradually move more public defenders onto the state payroll, where they may get better pay and better benefits, like a state pension.

By 2031, at least 20% of trial-level attorneys would need to be employees of the public defense commission. By 2035, at least 30% would need to be.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, the ACLU, praised the measure’s passage.

“For too long, our public defense system has been under-resourced and over-burdened, leaving hundreds of Oregonians in legal jeopardy and without legal representation,” Jessica Maravilla, policy director at the ACLU of Oregon, said in a statement.

Lawmakers who supported the plan said it’s needed after decades of inaction.

“SB 337 seeks to solve a problem 40 years in the making,” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth and co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety. Evans called it a “step in the right direction.”

But Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said he voted against the bill because he needed clearer expectations for how the money would address the issue.

“Just throwing money at the problem doesn’t work,” he said in an interview.

Meanwhile, public defenders are waiting to see how the money will improve their salaries.

Starting pay for a new public defender is about $73,000, Rees said. In comparison, an entry-level prosecutor in Multnomah County has a starting salary of about $98,000.

Rees stressed that one-time bonuses are not the right tool to address the crisis, as lawmakers have done in the past. 

The work is public service, but at the same time, public defenders also need to earn a living, he said.

“You can say, ‘Oh wow, you’re doing God’s work; you’re doing great work and I respect you so much for ministering to people,’” Rees said. “That only goes so far if you want to have a life where you have a family and a house. Glorifying the hardship that you’re going through for your job doesn’t pay for that.”


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Ben Botkin
Ben Botkin

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.