PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As Oregon faces a homeless and public defender shortage crisis, the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling for action and “real” solutions.
In November 2022, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed building six sanctioned homeless campsites across the city — along with a proposed $27 million “down payment” to kickstart the project.
“Unfortunately, the mayor’s plan to create these mass encampments and to basically make this mandatory by criminalization, this is not a real solution. This is simply politics and political theater,” said Sandy Chung, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon.
Chung added “and this is what’s really disappointing, experts in this area, including the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness…say that criminalization strategies are ineffective, expensive and actually worsen the tragedy of homelessness.”
Before the state’s 2023 legislative session kicked off on January 17, Wheeler sent a letter to then Governor-Elect Tina Kotek and state lawmakers, asking them to prioritize homelessness and the public defender shortage crises.
On homelessness, Wheeler echoed the Oregon Mayor Association’s request for the legislature to provide $40 per person in each city across Oregon. Statewide, Wheeler says this totals $123 million annually. In Portland, this totals $26 million.
The ACLU of Oregon is additionally calling for action on the state’s public defender shortage — which at one point left more than 700 people without legal representation across the state and nearly 300 cases dismissed, according to a November 2022 Associated Press report.
An American Bar Association estimate puts Oregon about 1,300 public defenders short, which is 31% of the state’s need.
“Under federal and state law, all people in the U.S. have the Constitutional right to have a lawyer represent you during criminal proceedings. The basic idea is you shouldn’t be sent to prison without having an expert, a lawyer, represent you in the processes,” Chung explained.
The Oregon ACLU executive director expects that people will say, “This is the public defense system in Oregon in crisis,” but stated that’s an inaccurate framing.
“This is actually a crisis of the overall criminal legal system in Oregon,” she said. “When you try to criminalize too many things, when you try to criminalize everything, there’s never going to be enough money and resources to go around.”
To alleviate the crisis, Chung said “we need lawmakers, prosecutors and judges to be really intentional with how they’re allocating criminal legal resources. That those resources be allocated to those issue areas that really affect the safety and wellness of our communities.”
In addition to allocating resources to safety-related crimes, Chung says Oregon is seeing a lot of low-level crimes that don’t impact safety being criminalized – adding, “we’re never going to have enough resources to criminalize all things and everyone.”
The public defender crisis is also top of mind for Governor Tina Kotek, who has proposed spending $40 million to hire more public defenders.
During a press conference detailing her budget proposal for the next two years, Kotek stated that the $40 million is a “starting point,” adding, “we need a system overhaul.”
The governor furthered that her goal is to make sure the state can deal with the unserved individuals now while also talking about long-term system chances.
“And that is when I’m hoping we will see, in collaboration with the judiciary and the legislature to make that happen,” she said. “[We] absolutely have to get on a better course by the end of the legislative session.”