PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Last week, a federal judge ordered officials to release detainees from police custody if they don’t have a lawyer within seven days of their first court appearance. Now the state of Oregon hopes a new commission will help.
As someone who was formerly incarcerated himself, Commissioner Alton Harvey Jr., one of only four returning members to the new Oregon Public Defense Commission, says he’s seen firsthand how the lack of public defenders in Oregon is impacting every facet of the criminal justice system.
“I’ve been to so many meetings, I’ve sat at so many tables, and we’ve done so much planning,” said Harvey Jr. “Now it’s time to put stuff into action.”
With monthly cases being dismissed and thousands of Oregonians still without an attorney, Commissioner Harvey Jr. spoke of some of the major changes coming to the Oregon’s public defense system.
“Everyone knows where we are. I believe we have the support of the community, although I know the community’s very frustrated -as they should be,” Harvey Jr. noted. “But I want the community to know that the commission, OPDS, we’re frustrated. And we’re doing everything reasonably within our power to get this thing going.”
As a current member of the Public Defense Services Commission, Harvey Jr. was recommended by Gov. Tina Kotek and reappointed to the new Oregon Public Defense Commission. This is slated to replace the current system next year.
Having previously struggled with addiction and former incarceration, the certified recovery mentor and addiction counselor says he’s seen how the state’s ongoing public defender shortage continues to impact those in and outside the criminal justice system.
“I’ve been that person that is sitting in there and not hearing from my attorney, and not knowing what’s going to happen,” voiced Harvey Jr. “The hollowness that the person feels, the loneliness that a person feels …”
Right now, state court data shows there are now more than three thousand people accused of crimes who are without an attorney and more than 120 still in custody.
This comes as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a joint meeting yesterday to hear an update from OPDS as they work to compile a public defense case forecast.
“How do we make sure that there is a nexus between the health care that they’re getting and not continuing to end up in the system and being adequately represented?” asked Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum.
While the issue won’t be settled overnight, Harvey Jr. says with recruitment and training, he believes the new team and leadership will attract more quality defense attorneys.
“My hope is that as we move forward with this commission and the leadership at OPDS, that we find those attorneys that really, really care about being on the other end of that line when it rings.” stated Harvey Jr.
This new Oregon Public Defense Commission is slated to take over on the first of next year. The first public defense caseload forecast is set to be released on April 15.