Public defenders stage walkout over crushing caseloads

Multnomah County

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Some public defenders in Multnomah County are staging a walkout this week.

They are calling attention to crushing caseloads and a bill in the legislature that would help pay for more attorneys and staff, as well as training. 

Several public defenders told KOIN 6 News they have hundreds of cases, and they often don’t get to dedicate as much time to each as they need.

“We are passionate about our work we want to help people,”  attorney Jennifer List said. 

Most cases involve people who can’t afford a private lawyer, so they are assigned a public defender. 

“Having a criminal conviction on your record can ruin your life, your ability to get a job, an apartment,” Lisa said. “Our attorneys are trying to anticipate all these things that can come out a client and with these numbers, it really impacts our ability to help somebody.”

Public defenders are worried lawmakers are not going to pass House Bill 3145, which would make reforms including more money for their role.

“The biggest issue is that clients across Oregon are not receiving the type and quality of representation they deserve,” said Carl Macpherson,  Executive Director of Metropolitan Defenders. 

Some attorneys with Multnomah Defenders Inc. are not in court this week as they work on trying to get the bill passed.

“People aren’t really concerned about criminal defendants in a large context until you walk into court and you are one you kind of think that’s somebody else problem,” List said. 

At the Metropolitan Public Defender Office, they’ve lost 25 of 70 attorneys in the past 18 months. They used to stay for 3-5 years but overwhelming caseloads, low pay and not enough time for training is pushing them out, according to the executive director. 

On Tuesday, public defenders will hand deliver letters to the governor and lawmakers asking for their support for more funding.

“If lawyers have too many cases, they may need to take a plea bargain or do other things to avoid lengthy trials,” said Sarah Armstrong with the ACLU of Oregon. “For clients, there is a chance people wouldn’t get the zealous advocate they’re entitled to under the Constitution.’ 

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