PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A new lawsuit filed against the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services alleges Oregonians are being denied their constitutional rights.

The class action lawsuit claims 1,200 people in the state are waiting on a defense attorney to proceed with their criminal cases and an attorney representing the plaintiffs says their lives are being upended in the meantime.

Oregon Justice Center attorney Benjamin Haile says the sought-after solution includes dismissing criminal cases when rights are violated.

“The delay in receiving a court-appointed attorney is having a huge impact on people’s lives,” Haile said.

Haile is representing four people accused of crimes in a class action lawsuit against the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services. He says people’s lives are stuck in limbo when they’re waiting on an attorney.

“The stigma of having charges pending and having no way to defend against them is deeply disturbing to people, people have been suspended by their employers, they’ve had job applications rejected because these charges show up on background checks,” Haile explained.

Some people are waiting anywhere from three weeks to over four months and longer for their defense attorney.

Haile says the problem of having too many Oregonians charged with crimes and not enough public defenders for them is unprecedented and foreseeable.

“Judges are shocked, and a bit confused about how long they should hold somebody in jail without an attorney because the state never had to deal with this violation of individual rights before,” Haile said.

Haile added that this is a problem that’s been long in the making.

“It’s been building up, public defense attorneys have been more and more strained, overloaded and under-resourced, but we finally reached this breaking point for the first time in February of 2022,” he said.

According to data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, the problem is even worse for black people in the justice system as black people are arrested, charged and prosecuted at higher rates in Oregon.

The senior attorney noted black people also have to rely on public defenders more instead of expensive private defense attorneys.

“Although public defenders are the last resort for most Oregonians, about 90% of all people charged with crimes in Oregon rely on a public defense attorney, but about 97% of black people rely on a public defense attorney,” Haile said.

Part of the relief being sought in the lawsuit is for criminal cases to be dropped seven days after arraignment if an attorney can’t be provided, so the people charged can reclaim their rights.

“The law says within 48 hours, or 72 hours over the weekend, that a person should be arraigned and typically an attorney is appointed,” Haile explained.

But he also says even if enough attorneys were onboarded by the state to guarantee everyone a public defender — which he says there are not enough lawyers to do — there needs to be a better solution than prosecution.

He says the problem extends nationwide.

“We are an extreme outlier in terms of our reliance on a largely discredited approach of just trying to prosecute and lock up many, many people,” Haile said. “Prosecuting more people is not the answer and I just urge people to imagine a community in which you knew that there were many people you could call during a crisis.”

Haile says 43 of those 1,200 people waiting for attorneys are waiting from inside custody. That means they are being held indefinitely until an attorney can be found.

KOIN 6 News reached out to the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services about the lawsuit and are waiting to hear back.