Chief Justice calls government summit to address Oregon’s public defense crisis

The chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court wants government leaders to come together to address systemic issues driving the state’s deepening public defense crisis.

Chief Justice Martha Walters, who heads the state’s judiciary, asked lawmakers and Gov. Kate Brown in a letter Tuesday to help plan a summit to find solutions to public defense and public safety.

“I envision the summit as an opportunity for us to discuss and agree on longer-term changes to our public defense and security systems to make them stronger and more effective,” Walters wrote.

Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court Martha L. Walters addresses the Oregon House of Representatives Monday, January 14, 2019, in Salem, Oregon.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Since last fall, a shortage of public defenders has left hundreds of penniless criminal defense attorneys without an attorney – a right granted by the US Constitution that the state has repeatedly violated. Oregon outsources all of its litigation-level public defense systems to groups of attorneys and non-profit organizations. With courts closed or restricted for much of the pandemic, caseloads for public defenders have escalated to the point where these attorneys are unable to take on new clients.

In Washington County, 11 people are in custody without a lawyer, court officials said Wednesday. More than 260 people in Multnomah County are without a lawyer. Of these, 22 are in custody.

While public defense in Oregon is highly decentralized, it is operated primarily by securing and paying for contracts with public defense contractors by the Office of Public Defense Services. OPDS is part of the Oregon Judiciary. Walters is responsible for appointing the commission members who hire and oversee the agency’s executive director.

The lack of public defenders has exposed the role they play in the state’s public safety system.

In Multnomah County, judges have dismissed 35 cases over prosecutorial objections because the state could not provide a public defender, according to a prosecutor’s memo Tuesday. Many of these defendants could later be indicted by a grand jury.

“Only the most serious personal crimes make progress,” the memo said. The Office “is in no meaningful position to prosecute crimes other than the most serious personal crimes.”

in one Commentary recently published in the Oregonian/OregonLive, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said that prior to the pandemic, the county’s district court would hold 25 to 30 trials a week. In the past two years, the district has averaged three to five.

“It will take years to clear the backlog of cases, and in the meantime, prosecutions are taking much, much longer than they did before the pandemic,” Schmidt wrote. “Evidence is obsolete. The victims move on or move away. The memory grows hazy. Justice is delayed if not withheld.”

Ahead of the summit, Walters said she would host a series of meetings with prosecutors, judges and public defenders starting next week. She said the state must act faster to address its “imminent crisis”. Her first meeting will be in Multnomah County next week, where she noted a staffing shortage in the sheriff’s office has made it difficult to assist with visits from attorneys and clients who are “critical to case resolution,” as well as individuals in custody to bring to court hearings.

“The current crisis is having real implications for defendants’ constitutional rights to counsel, the courts’ ability to resolve cases, the safety of our communities,” Walters wrote.

The public defense crisis was most acute in Multnomah, Marion, Washington and Lane counties, where lawmakers last legislature sought $12.8 million to hire more public defenders and auxiliaries. In her letter, Walters wrote, “vendors have found this hire more difficult than expected and also face the unexpected loss of experienced attorneys.”

“I would say that’s very true,” said Jessica Kampfe, executive director of Multnomah Defenders Inc., one of two nonprofit public defense organizations in the county. “We hired two lawyers who wanted to use the funds, as well as an investigator and support staff. We were on the way to hiring a third (lawyer).”

At the same time, more experienced lawyers are leaving the company.

“In the last month I have fired five lawyers,” Kampfe said. “I can’t work my way out of this problem if I can’t stop the bleeding.”

Case counts and staffing challenges have prevented her office from accepting new clients charged with crimes since February. On Monday, Multnomah Defenders Inc. and Metropolitan Public Defender, the state’s largest nonprofit public defense firm, will temporarily stop accepting new clients charged with county misdemeanors.

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