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Chief justice floats government summit to address Oregon’s public defense crisis

Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha L. Walters addresses the Oregon House of Representatives on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha L. Walters addresses the Oregon House of Representatives on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

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

Chief Justice Martha Walters, who leads the state’s judicial branch, asked legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown in a letter Tuesday to help plan a summit to find solutions for public defense and public safety.

“I envision the Summit as a way for us to discuss and agree on longer-term changes to our public defense and public safety systems to make them stronger and more effective,” Walters wrote.

Since last fall, a shortage of public defenders has left hundreds of indigent criminal defendants without an attorney — a right afforded by the U.S. Constitution that the state has violated repeatedly. Oregon contracts its entire trial-level public defense systems to groups of attorneys and nonprofits. With courts closed or operating in a limited capacity during much of the pandemic, caseloads for public defenders have built up to the point those lawyers are unable to take on new clients.

In Washington County, 11 people in custody are without an attorney, court staff said Wednesday. In Multnomah County, more than 260 people are without an attorney. Of those, 22 are in custody.

While public defense is highly decentralized in Oregon, it’s run by the Office of Public Defense Services largely through securing and paying contracts to public defense firms. 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 the objections of prosecutors, because the state has been unable to provide a public defender, according to a memo dated Tuesday from the district attorney’s office. Many of those defendants could still be indicted later by a grand jury.

“Only the most serious person crimes are moving forward,” the memo states. The office “is unable in any meaningful manner to prosecute felony crimes other than the most serious person crimes.”

In a recent op-ed published in the Oregonian/OregonLive, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said that prior to the pandemic, the county’s circuit court would hold 25 to 30 jury trials per week. During the last two years, the county has averaged three to five.

“The backlog of cases will take years to resolve, and in the meantime, prosecutions are taking far, far longer than they did prior to the pandemic,” Schmidt wrote. “Evidence gets stale. Victims move on or move away. Memory becomes foggy. Justice is delayed, if not denied.”

Leading up to the summit, Walters said she’ll host a series of meetings with prosecutors, judges and public defenders starting next week. She said the state needs to move faster to address its “immediate crisis.” Her first meeting will be next week in Multnomah County where, she noted, a lack of staffing at the sheriff’s office has made it challenging to assist with attorney-client visits “critical to case resolution,” as well as transporting people in custody to court hearings.

“The current crisis is having a real impact on defendants who have a constitutional right to counsel, on courts’ ability to resolve cases, on the safety of our communities,” Walters wrote.

The public defense crisis has been most acute in Multnomah, Marion, Washington and Lane counties, where lawmakers targeted $12.8 million at the last legislative session to hire more public defenders and support staff. In her letter Walters wrote, “providers have found it more difficult than anticipated to do that hiring and are also facing the unanticipated loss of experienced counsel.”

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

At the same time, more experienced attorneys are leaving.

“In the last month, I’ve had five lawyers quit,” Kampfe said. “I can’t hire my way out of this problem if I can’t stop the bleeding.”

Caseloads and staffing challenges have prevented her office from taking new clients charged with felonies since February. On Monday, Multnomah Defenders Inc. and Metropolitan Public Defender, the largest public defense nonprofit firm in the state, will temporarily stop taking new clients charged with misdemeanors in the county.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.