Portland, Ore. ( Associated Press) — Criminal defendants in Oregon who have long gone without legal representation amid a severe shortage of public defense attorneys filed a lawsuit Monday alleging that the state violated its constitutional right of legal counsel and a Rapid test is violated. ,
The complaint, which seeks class-action status, was filed as state lawmakers and the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services struggled to address an acute shortage of public defenders across the state.
The crisis has dismissed dozens of cases and left an estimated 500 defendants across the state – including several dozen in custody on serious crimes – without legal representation. Crime victims are also affected as cases are taking longer to reach resolution, experts say, adding that delays add to their trauma, weaken evidence and undermine trust in the justice system, especially for low-income earners. and among minority groups.
“There is a public defense crisis raging in this country,” said Jason D., executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at the New York University School of Law. Williamson, who helped prepare the filing. “But Oregon is among only a handful of states that is now completely denying people their constitutional right to be consulted on a daily basis, leaving countless defendants without access to an attorney for months at a time. Used to be.”
The lawsuit specifically names the recently appointed executive directors of the state’s Public Defense Agency, Gov. Kate Brown and Stephen Singer, and seeks a court order to release criminal defendants if they are required to have an attorney within a reasonable period of time. time cannot be provided. The lawsuit does not specify what would be considered “reasonable”.
Singer said he could not comment until he had completed a full review of the lawsuit. Brown’s office declined to comment on the pending trial.
Oregon’s system for providing attorneys for criminal defendants who could not afford them was less and less understood before COVID-19, but a significant slowdown in court activity during the pandemic brought it to a breaking point. pushed. A backlog of cases is filling up in the courts and defendants are routinely prosecuted and then postponed by two months to their hearing dates, in the hope that a public defender will be available later.
A report from the American Bar Association released in January found that Oregon has 31% of the public defenders it needs. The authors said each current attorney would have to work more than 26 hours a day during the work week to cover the caseload.
Similar problems are facing states from New England to Wisconsin to New Mexico, as systems were already overburdened and demand flooded in the form of lawyer departures, less funding and an easing of COVID-19 precautions. were struggling with. Missouri eliminated waiting lists for public defenders after filing a lawsuit in 2020, and Idaho is also in litigation over the public defense crisis.
The Oregon complaint focuses on four plaintiffs who have been without legal representation for more than six weeks, including a man who cannot pay his bail but has been jailed for 17 days without a lawyer and Cannot hear bail without representation.
In two other cases, the lawsuit alleges, the plaintiffs were released from custody following their arrests and asked to call a number so that a defense attorney could be assigned. The complaint states that he left a voicemail and made repeated calls and got no response. They appear for hearings alone and their cases are pushed back as there is no public defender available.
Jesse Meriteau, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that not having legal representation right after an arrest creates a cascade of problems for criminal defendants that are nearly impossible to overcome later. One such example, he said, is the ability to secure any surveillance video that could support a defendant’s case because looping security videos are often erased after days or weeks.
“The time immediately following an arrest is the most critical time, as any criminal defense attorney will tell you representing a client,” he said. “It is unacceptable to allow a delay in the employment of the Council for weeks or months on end.”
The lawsuit alleges that the lack of public defenders also disproportionately affected black defendants. Studies conducted in the Portland area in 2014 and 2019 showed that 98% and 97% of black defendants had court-appointed attorneys in those years, respectively, compared to 91% of white defendants.
In the current crisis, 23% of people waiting for an attorney were black across the state in recent days, despite the fact that black people make up 3% of Oregon’s population overall.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center, a legal nonprofit representing the plaintiffs, said repair of the system should not be focused solely on hiring more public defenders. Rethinking criminal defense should also mean reducing penalties and jail time for lower-level crimes and offering more alternative solutions to crimes.
“The failure of the State in this regard requires immediate action. But the problem cannot be solved with more lawyers,” said Ben Hale, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which is representing the plaintiffs. “The criminal justice system has effective alternatives to prosecuting many people caught in the process that would make the public more secure at a lower cost and with less collateral damage to the families of those facing prosecution.”
Public defenders warned that the system was on the verge of collapse before the pandemic.
In 2019, some lawyers even staged a sit-in outside the state capitol for higher pay and lower caseloads. But lawmakers did not act and months later, COVID-19 paralyzed the courts. There were no felony or misdemeanor jury trials in April 2020 and access to the court system was limited for months, with only limited in-person proceedings and remote services provided.
The situation is more complicated than in other states because Oregon’s public protector system is the only system in the country that relies entirely on contractors. Cases are assigned to either large non-profit defense firms, small collaborative groups of private defense attorneys who contract for cases or independent attorneys who can take on cases at will.
Now, some of those large non-profit firms are refusing to take new cases due to periodic surcharges. Private attorneys – they usually serve as relief valves where conflicts of interest arise – are also rejecting new clients due to workload, poor pay rates and late payments from the state.
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