PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon state House Committee on Judiciary unanimously approved House Bill 4007 last week to move forward with the vote, which would grant $25 million to fund a Public Defense Attorney Loan Repayment Assistance Program. 

The committee is chaired by Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), who stated in a release Thursday, “With less than one-third of public defenders needed to meet caseloads, House Bill 4007 would establish funding to help attract and retain talent to address the backlog in cases.”

If passed, the bill would finance $25 million for student loan forgiveness to qualifying public defenders who have served for the past three years. 

As outlined in the bill, approved applicants could receive up to $25,000 each year, and $200,000 total in loan repayment assistance.

Bynum said the program is needed now more than ever, as Oregon’s critical defense attorney shortage continues to impact residents’ rights to defense and victim resolution.

“A strong public defense system is critical to the rule of law,” Bynum stated. “By rebuilding our public defense system, we can ensure that every Oregonian has access to justice. Backlogs in our system hurt everyone. Victims deserve justice and resolutions to their cases.”

She continued. “Oregonians deserve access to effective counsel when charged with a crime. Public defenders deserve a state that supports them for the vital civil service work they do to uphold our constitutional rights. This bill is an important step in fixing Oregon’s broken public defense system.”

In addition to the unanimous committee vote, the bill has garnered the support of the Urban League of Portland, Oregon Justice Resource Center, ACLU-Oregon, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Oregon), The Coalition of Communities of Color, and Oregon public defenders. 

“Oregon has an urgent, immediate need for qualified attorneys to work in public defense, especially in cases involving serious felonies,” Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters stated. “I am grateful for Representative Bynum’s interest and engagement and look forward to working with her and other leaders to find effective ways to address the public defense crisis.”

Per Bynum’s request, the Legislative Policy and Research Office conducted a survey to analyze the scope of debt held by Oregon public defenders. 

Last week, the office presented the survey results to the committee, which showed most Oregon public defenders had high amounts of debt. The survey findings can be found here.

According to the proposal, if the bill is passed the Oregon State Bar would hold the responsibility of administering the program and annual reporting to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees.