Daily in Oregon jails, about 40 people remain in custody without a public defender to represent them in court. Some have waited weeks for a lawyer, others have waited months. Several hundred more people charged with crimes but not in jail also await their constitutional right to counsel.
The crisis is severe, and not limited to Oregon, Stateline reports. Before the pandemic, many court systems nationwide were unable to meet demand for public defenders, but the crunch worsened after COVID-19 slowed courtroom operations. In New York City, hundreds of lawyers who work for public defense agencies have quit their jobs in the past year, citing low pay and severe overwork.
In Oregon, the problem is so acute that civil rights advocates sued this spring to force a response from Gov. Kate Brown and the state agency that oversees a $339 million public defense budget. The lawsuit demands that the state either fulfill its obligation to provide counsel to all defendants who request a public defender, or dismiss the cases if it cannot provide lawyers.
At least 274 people in Multnomah County, which includes Portland and is the state’s largest, were unrepresented by lawyers when the suit was filed in May.
"These indefinitely pending charges take a terrible toll on people's lives," said Ben Haile of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which represents low-income and underserved people. The center and other groups filed the lawsuit on behalf of people awaiting attorneys.
Delays impede investigations and the gathering of evidence or witness statements. Surveillance footage can be overwritten in as little as a week.
"People go to court over and over often on a four- to six-week cycle," Haile said. "They're just given a new hearing date, and they come back and each time the judge just says, 'Sorry, we don't have an attorney for you. We don't know when we will.' And they're sent away with another hearing date."
A report in January by the American Bar Association suggested that Oregon has only about a third of the defense attorneys necessary to represent criminal defendants. Public defenders are not state or county employees in Oregon, which contracts out public defense work to nonprofit agencies and consortiums of private defense attorneys or individual lawyers. The state is among many that are "failing to meet the promise of equal justice under the law," the report warned.
The bar association has conducted similar studies of caseloads and systemic weaknesses in Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico and Rhode Island.
Under the Sixth Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford a lawyer is entitled to an adequate attorney at government expense.