PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The recent surge in deadly shootings is creating huge workloads for lawyers, even leading to some cases being dropped because there aren’t enough public defenders to take cases.
The District Attorney’s Office says since February, the court has dismissed 33 cases because of a lack of public defenders in Multnomah County. They say they objected to all 33 of those dismissals.
As the executive director of metropolitan public defenders explains, if the state charges someone with a crime, that person is presumed innocent and has a constitutional right to a lawyer.
Without counsel, their due process rights would be violated so, without enough public defenders for all these cases, some minor felonies are being dismissed.
“Public defense in Oregon has historically been under resourced. And the system is overloaded,” Metropolitan Public Defender Carl MacPherson said.
Macpherson explained “the pandemic exacerbated an already untenable situation, where caseloads were already high, already at excessive levels coming into the pandemic. The backlog that was created during the pandemic exacerbated that.”
He says pre-pandemic, public defenders would usually have between 60-90 cases. That number rose to 130 in January.
In a statement to KOIN 6 News, District Attorney Mike Schmidt said “This situation is unacceptable. As a result of the state’s inability to provide counsel to indigent defendants in most felony cases, and despite efforts of the attorneys in my office to assert and enforce crime victims’ rights, only the most violent felonies are being allowed to move forward at this time.”
Schmidt added “until our public defenders are in a position to accept these appointments again, and afford those accused of crimes their constitutional right to counsel, the justice system is at a standstill. The threat that this poses to public safety cannot be overstated. This is a crisis.”
A recent American Bar Association report shows Oregon has 31% of the public defenders needed.
In a statement, Gov Brown’s Office said “Governor Brown believes strongly in supporting a public defense system that is fair, just, and ensures every Oregonian can exercise their constitutional right to legal representation. She remains concerned that, because public defenders carry high caseloads, are underpaid, and often face off against prosecutors who are better funded, those goals are difficult to achieve.”
Brown’s office added “the Governor meets monthly with the Chief Justice, and during this month’s meeting they discussed their shared concerns about public defense. She supports the Chief Justice’s efforts in convening stakeholders around these longstanding issues.”
“She believes it is critically important that we work collaboratively to address short-term concerns, while also looking towards long-term solutions, similar to her recent collaboration with the Chief Justice and legislature to dedicate additional funds this biennium to hire more public defenders. Our office stands ready to participate in the collaborative process,” Brown’s Office said.