In Short

Oregon governor, legislature, courts launch new effort to address public defender shortage

By: - April 20, 2022 2:59 pm

The Oregon Supreme Court could have two new members before Gov. Kate Brown’s term ends. (Salem Reporter)

Lawmakers, Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Judicial Department are launching a new effort to address a shortage of attorneys that has left some Oregonians jailed without the legal representation they’re guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. 

A workgroup announced this week will analyze management, financial and structural challenges facing the state office that oversees roughly 600 public defense attorneys throughout the state. The state Office of Public Defense Services contracts with private attorneys and nonprofit organizations to handle defendants’ cases.  

An April report from the American Bar Association concluded that the state’s existing corps of public defense attorneys would each need to work more than 26 hours per day to ensure every defendant has an attorney. Because they don’t have that time, people who can’t afford to pay a private attorney can end up with subpar representation from overworked attorneys, and some are in jail awaiting the appointment of an attorney.

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, an attorney from Corvallis, called the situation an “emergency.” 

“Oregonians are languishing in jail without access to legal representation, while public defenders have long been underpaid and overworked,” he said in a statement. “The system is broken and lacks the opportunity for effective legislative oversight.”

The workgroup consists of a small group of legislators and representatives from Brown’s office and the judicial branch. It follows a letter Martha Walters, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, sent Brown, Rayfield and Senate President Peter Courtney earlier this month asking for a government summit to develop a plan. 

The Legislature in March allocated $12.8 million to the Office of Public Defense Services, enough to pay for about 36 additional public defenders. The state needs another1,300, according to the American Bar Association report. 

In her letter, Walters said the additional funding hasn’t yet helped, as firms that contract with the state are having a hard time hiring new lawyers and have lost veterans. 

The limited funding provided by the Legislature prompted Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas and the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to vote against a $1.4 billion legislative spending plan this year. Bynum also asked that the Legislature return in a special session to address the shortage.

Bynum said via text that she won’t be part of the group, but that it should seriously consider incentives for lawyers such as expanding student loan forgiveness to those willing to work as public defenders. The office in charge of public defense also could improve its IT system  by emulating a system the judicial branch uses to identify bottlenecks, she said.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.