PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Amid Oregon’s public defender shortage, state lawmakers are releasing $100 million general fund dollars to help fight the problem.
In April, KOIN 6 News learned that in the Portland area the court has dismissed about 40 cases, including some felonies, because there weren’t enough public defenders to take the cases.
Now, the Oregon legislature is releasing these funds to public defenders in Oregon.
The Oregon legislature approved release of the $100 million in special purpose appropriation funds which will be broken up like this:
- $70.3 million for the Criminal Trial Division
- $14.6 million for Nonroutine Expenses
- $5 million for Court Mandated Expenses
- $10.2 million for the Juvenile Division
Some lawmakers voted against releasing these funds because they thought it was too much money, but the vote ultimately passed.
“It’s a mess,” Senator Peter Courtney said. “When we deal with right to counsel…it’s not Republican or Democrat.”
Public defenders across the state have been raising concerns about their dwindling numbers and backlog of cases.
In May, a group of criminal defendants filed a lawsuit against the state over their lack of access to counsel.
In the past, public defenders told KOIN 6 News that low pay makes it hard to recruit public defenders in the state. Senators are hoping this funding could help.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward explained “they’re still well below district attorneys so this is not generous but the amount going…is designed to at least improve reimbursement for public defenders.”
The Oregon Office of Public Defense Services wanted to make it clear this is not extra or bonus money, explaining it is part of their budget. The office requested the release of those funds.
According to the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, the funds were held back until the Public Defense Services Commission (PDSC) and the Office of Public Defense Services (OPDS) made “satisfactory progress toward restructuring, modernization, financial controls, quality management, performance metrics, and governance of the agency.”
On June 1, PDSC testified for the release of the funds to the General Government Subcommittee.
“We are in a rebuild posture,” OPDS Executive Director Stephen Singer testified. “We anticipate spending every single dime of the $100 million to maintain our current service level.”
After the hearing, Singer noted “much more needs to be done beyond these additional resources the Legislature allocated in the 2022 session and released last week, to ensure that every Oregonian has the legal representation they are guaranteed in our system of justice.”
Michaela Bourgeois contributed to this report.