Oregon’s public defender system long has shown cracks, but a post-pandemic glut of delayed cases has exposed constitutional landmines affecting defendants and crime victims alike in a state with a reputation for progressive social justice. An acute shortage of public defenders means that at any time at least several hundred low-income criminal defendants don’t have legal representation, sometimes in serious felony cases that could imprison them years. Judges have dismissed nearly four dozen cases in the Portland area, among them a domestic violence case with allegations of strangulation and have threatened to hold the state public defenders office in contempt of court for failing to provide attorneys.
Oregon sends out a weekly list of unrepresented defendants to private attorneys begging for help. Some of the accused have been jailed without a lawyer for months on charges of rape, sodomy, child sexual abuse or attempted murder, records show. Court proceedings for those not in custody are repeatedly pushed back, leaving defendants in limbo and the courts spinning their wheels, the Associated Press reports. “We’re overwhelmed. The pandemic is exposing all the problems that we have, the under-resourcing and the underfunding, and it just hit a breaking point,” said Carl Macpherson of Metropolitan Public Defender, a large nonprofit public defender firm in Portland that temporarily stopped taking new cases when its attorneys couldn’t keep up. “It just became abundantly clear that we are broken. You cannot do your job when you have 130 open felony cases per attorney,” Macpherson said. Public defenders warned that the system was on the brink of collapse before the pandemic. In 2019, some attorneys picketed outside the state Capitol for higher pay and reduced caseloads. Lawmakers didn’t act and months later, COVID-19 shut down the courts. Now, the system is “buckling before our eyes,” said Kelly Simon of the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union. Macpherson estimates there are now about 500 defendants going without public defenders statewide and that’s likely a significant undercount.