Saturday, December 10, 2022

Pandemic pushes Oregon’s public protector system to the brink

Portland, Ore. ( Associated Press) — Cases following an epidemic of delayed cases have exposed shocking constitutional landmines that affect defendants and crime victims alike in Oregon, a state with a national reputation for progressive social justice. is with.

The acute shortage of public defenders means that at any given time, at least several hundred low-income criminal defendants have no legal representation, sometimes in increasingly serious cases that can keep them away for years.

Judges have dismissed nearly four dozen cases in the Portland area alone — including a domestic violence case with strangulation charges — and threatened to hold the state in contempt.

“We are overwhelmed. The pandemic is exposing all the problems we have,” said Carl McPherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, a large Portland nonprofit public defender firm. “It just became abundantly clear. that we are broken.”

Public defenders warned that the system was on the verge of collapse before the pandemic and some staged walkouts in 2019. But lawmakers did not act and then COVID-19 closed the courts. Now, the system is “bending before our eyes,” said Kelly Simon, legal director of the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union.

The crisis in Oregon, while extreme, reflects a nationwide reckoning on nationwide defenses, as courts seek to absorb a pandemic backlog of criminal cases with public defense systems that have long been few and far between. From New England to New Mexico to Wisconsin, states are struggling to keep public protector services running.

So far relying solely on contracts with private attorneys, Maine this month set aside nearly $1 million to hire that state’s first five public defenders, with the focus on rural counties.

In New Mexico, a recent report found that the state had fewer than 600 full-time public defenders. In New Hampshire, where an estimated 800 defendants were without lawyers, state lawmakers in March approved more than $2 million to increase the pay of public defenders. And in Wisconsin, where the starting salary for public defenders is $27 an hour, there is a shortage of 60 attorney positions across the state.

“It’s America’s dirty little secret: Thousands of people go to jail every day in courts across the country without talking to a lawyer,” said John Mosher, deputy director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center.

An American Bar Association report released in January found that Oregon has 31% of the public defenders it needs. The authors found that each current attorney would have to work more than 26 hours each week to cover the caseload.

“It’s appalling. I don’t want to say anything about it. I’m not going to make excuses for it,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who co-chairs the state legislature’s Ways and Means Committee. “That being said, we cannot build lawyers out of thin air.”

For the victims, the situation is devastating and it is hurting the most vulnerable.

Cassie Trahan, co-founder and executive director of an Oregon nonprofit that works with teen and young adult victims of sex trafficking, said trust in the judicial system is waning, especially in minority and immigrant communities. Victims no longer want to come forward when they see cases being dismissed or ending in weak arguments to reduce pressure on the courts.

Trahan said a victim in a pending trafficking case “lives in constant fear that it will be dismissed.”

Prosecutors can get indicted by a grand jury when cases are dismissed for lack of a public defender and police re-arrest the alleged perpetrator – but this is a small consolation for the victims.

“In his mind, it’s like, ‘Now I’ve put myself out there, now I’ve spoken out against him and what if he gets off? Trahan said about the victim. “That’s what we’re seeing more and more, especially in communities of color and groups that don’t trust the judicial system anyway.”

The legislature recently approved $12.8 million in one-time funding for the four hardest-hit counties, along with a suite of legislative reforms. New contracts coming out this summer will establish a low attorney case cap. And lawmakers are withholding $100 million from the agency’s budget until a number of reforms are shown in good faith, including restructuring, financial audits and performance metrics.

A working group of all three government branches will convene this month to tackle the “comprehensive and structural modernization” of the system.

Autumn Shreve, government relations manager for the State Office of the Public Defense Services, said the pandemic has finally forced the hand of state lawmakers who haven’t kept a close eye on public defenders in nearly 20 years.

“It has been a rag tag group of people trying to cover up caseloads year after year and there has been a lot of paperwork about the problems because of it,” she said.

Meanwhile, the situation in the state courts is grim.

Often those without lawyers are charged with heinous crimes that come with heavy prison sentences if convicted, making it even more difficult to find qualified public defenders to handle such complex cases. And the people who handle misdemeanors are often young lawyers who take on 100 or more cases at once.

“You can’t keep everything in your mind when you have so many customers at the same time. Even you know, ‘What is your current petition?’ I don’t remember that for 100 people. Or I can’t remember, ‘What does the police report actually say?’ said Drew Flood, a public defender at Metropolitan Public Defender.

“It’s the scariest thing in his life,” he said.

Other public defense services, including private investigators and legal advisors, have also reached breaking point.

Renardo Michele, jailed on charges of attempted murder, decided to represent himself after not hearing from his public defender for five months. The court-appointed legal adviser to appoint expert witnesses and help file motions died suddenly in February and has been without a legal counsel ever since.

Two years after his arrest, he still hasn’t seen all the finds in his case, said Mitchell, 37. His public-private investigator — Michelle’s sole connection to their proceedings — recently had to petition the court to develop evidence for more paid hours to defend her.

“We are all innocent until proven guilty. Nothing has been proven yet – I have not been found guilty,” said Mitchell, who faces more than 22 years in prison if convicted. That if I did the things they allege, I still have a right to due process of law. ,

The chief prosecutor in Portland has become a vocal advocate of public defender reform for the same reason.

“The most important thing is that everyone has the right to an attorney, it’s a constitutional right,” said Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schmidt.

“It’s an ecosystem, like a coral reef. If you remove one aspect of this system, all the other aspects fall apart.”


Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin; and Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.


Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at


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