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Oregon Struggles Over A Shortage of Public Defenders

District attorneys in Oregon are calling for change to fix the state’s critical shortage of court-provided attorneys for low-income defendants. The lack of public defenders has strained the criminal justice system and left more than 700 people statewide without legal representation, the Associated Press reports. Judges in Portland's Multnomah County have dismissed nearly 300 cases this year due to a lack of defense attorneys able to handle cases. The county’s prosecutor, Mike Schmidt, said that the shortage poses “ an urgent threat to public safety ” and released a tally this week of dismissed cases. He pledged to release new numbers weekly to draw attention to the crisis. More than two-thirds of the dismissed cases are felonies; in 53 percent of them, property crime was the primary charge. The next most common primary charge was for weapon crimes.. Schmidt, a progressive prosecutor who was elected in 2020 on a platform of criminal justice reforms, said the lack of prosecutors encourages crime. He said, “This sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable and their harm will go unaddressed. It also sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources.”

In an attempt to solve the issue this month, Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said he would seek a court order requiring the state’s public defense agency to appoint its own staff attorneys to represent defendants if no other attorneys were available. The legislature is set to tackle the issue when the next session begins in January. A working group has been meeting for months and considering major reforms that could overhaul the system. One proposal would reassign the Office of Public Defense Services from the Judicial Department, where it’s housed, to the governor’s office, in response to criticism of conflicts of interest. Oregon’s system for providing attorneys to criminal defendants who can’t afford them has shown cracks for years, but case backlogs have significantly worsened since the pandemic. The public defender shortage has overwhelmed the courts, frustrated defendants, and affect crime victims, who experts say experience more trauma when cases are dismissed or take longer to be resolved. Public defenders say that uncompetitive pay, high stress, and overwhelming caseloads also affect staffing levels. “You’re being asked as a public defender to be a lawyer, a social worker, a counselor, an investigator,” said Carl Macpherson of Metropolitan Public Defender, a large nonprofit public defender firm in Portland. “The criminal legal system doesn’t help people with severe issues. It’s a short-term punitive response to a bigger issue."


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