PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – As cases continue to drop and hundreds of defendants remain without counsel, the head of the Oregon Supreme Court called for swift solutions to address the State’s ongoing public defender crisis.

In a six-page letter to commissioners of the Public Defense Services, Chief Justice Martha Walters wrote, “hundreds who are constitutionally entitled to counsel are being denied that right, and no end is in sight.”

Walter’s letter, which was sent to the commission on July 1, requested the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services (OPDS) develop and present a comprehensive plan to help solve the issue by July 21.

“The plan I am seeking is one that proposes immediate steps that will enable PDSC to fulfill its obligation to provide lawyers for those who have a constitutional right to representation,” she wrote.

Within the letter, Walters outlined a list of recommendations PDSC, OPDS, public defense providers, and the courts could follow to help address the issue in the near future including, hiring more public defense attorneys and support staff, reducing the caseloads, and potentially seeking help from the private bar.

But Bobbin Singh, Executive Director of the Oregon Justice Research Center (OJRC) told KOIN 6 News he felt the letter was misguided.

“I was troubled by the letter to be honest,” Singh stated. “She is isolating and targeting the public defense services office. You don’t see the chief justice or the executive or the legislature taking ownership of this issue.”

He continued, “this is a state issue. All three branches are responsible for this and until they take ownership of it, we’re never going to get to a reasonable solution. And that’s the reason why we brought a class action lawsuit against the state.”

In May of 2022, the OJRC helped four Oregonians file a class action lawsuit against the state for not providing them with an attorney.

Court documents show the suit was filed because, “the state has failed to provide counsel in clear violation of basic standards of justice and long-settled state and federal law.”

While Singh says that suit is still in pre-trial litigation as they wait for the state to respond, he told KOIN 6 News he believes there are more effective ways to address the public defender shortage without placing the responsibility solely on the OPDS.

“We’re not going to somehow create hundreds of new public defenders in the state to meet the demand that’s there,” Singh stated. “So, the question that we have to address is, how do we reduce the need for public defenders?”

He continued, “that would require DA’s to make different charging decisions and not over-criminalize low-level offenses which don’t impact public safety…therefore reducing the number of people entering the system and allowing the system to catch up and restructure itself.”

Sharing the responsibility to help address the issue, is a sentiment echoed by PODS Executive Director Stephen Singer.

“The public defense system in Oregon has been chronically underfunded and under-resourced for decades,” Singer stated in response to the Chief Justice’s letter. “For years, the legislature has been unwilling to pass reforms that directly address the underlying issue: The lawyers that serve our public defense system are overworked and underpaid. That has led to a shortage of lawyers, and defendants sitting in jail without representation.”

He continued, “the Chief Justice is right, there needs to be a plan to address this crisis, but it is not one the agency can shoulder on its own.  It will take all the stakeholders, the court system, the district attorneys, the legislature, the governor, and lawyers across this state, to work together to change a system that has been broken this long.”