PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon does not have an adequate number of public defenders to keep up with crime, officials say.
According to the American Bar Association, a new study shows Oregon needs nearly 1,300 more full-time public defenders to handle the current criminal caseload. The ABA says the state has about 31% of the number of public defenders needed to provide adequate representation for adult and juvenile cases.
Experts say this is a problem that bleeds into every part of a community. Plus, with burnout and mounting caseloads, more and more public defenders are wearing thin — further straining a system that is already drained.
Oregon has a public defense system that is different from every other state in America. Oregon contracts 100% of its public defense through non-profits, individual attorneys and such. The ABA found that in the state, public defenders are very close to violating their professional responsibility to provide competent counsel — but not for lack of trying.
In Oregon, public defenders not only represent juvenile and adult criminal cases, but also handle care and dependency cases representing both the parents and kids. They are mandated by the constitution to provide adequate representation for anyone who requires it — so who suffers when there are not enough resources to go around?
Steve Singer, the executive director for the Office of Public Defense Services in Oregon, says everyone does.
“We all suffer,” Singer explained. “The court system suffers because cases can’t proceed forward, victims and their families suffer because cases cant move forward, district attorneys and prosecutors’ offices suffer.”
Singer says this issue has been ignored for far too long and if he wants the community to take one thing away from this, it’s understanding how this issue impacts us all.
“The way we got here is probably, basically sort of decades of trying to put bandaids on a system of providing representation in cases that is inadequate to the task at hand,” he explained.
Singer told KOIN 6 News this is not something we’ll see fixed overnight, especially considering we need to uphold the current public defense system while experimenting with ways to fix it — a large but necessary task.
He says if we don’t take a whole community approach to this, we are missing the opportunity to actually solve the problem.