Bonamici Suggests Using Federal Funding To Pay For Public Defenders In Oregon

Bonamici: U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici has proposed allocating $250 million in government funding to assist pay for and alleviate a nationwide shortage of public defenders.

Although it is highly doubtful that the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal (EQUAL) Defense Act would become law in the brief post-election session of Congress, it may serve as a basis for a law in the 118th Congress or be added to must-pass legislation. After January 3rd, the House will be controlled by a Republican majority instead of a Democratic one.

Bonamici Suggests Using Federal Funding To Pay For Public Defenders In Oregon

The measure would also mandate the collection of workload statistics and the achievement of wage equity between public defenders and prosecutors within five years, in addition to the grants. It is recommended to allocate an additional $5 million to fund training grants for public and non-profit organizations.

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Many public defenders are underfunded, overworked, and fresh out of law school. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

Democrat Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton was re-elected on November 8 to represent Oregon’s 1st Congressional District.

In a statement, she explained that she was carrying on where former Florida congressman Ted Deutch left off. Deutch served as a Democrat in the House from 2010 until September 30, when he resigned to become the American Jewish Committee’s CEO.

To quote what she had to say:

People accused of crimes have a right to legal representation, and public defenders play a crucial role in our system of criminal justice.

There is a critical lack of public defenders at the moment, and the ones we have are working hard under difficult conditions. Previously, my former colleague Ted Deutch led this measure to expand access to legal representation and reduce the financial burden of jail.

To ensure that public defenders and those working in the criminal justice system have access to the resources they need and deserve, I am leading the charge on the EQUAL Defense Act.

Bonamici Suggests Using Federal Funding To Pay For Public Defenders In Oregon
Bonamici Suggests Using Federal Funding To Pay For Public Defenders In Oregon

Bonamici is a lawyer in her own right, and her husband, Michael Simon, is a federal judge in Portland. But the legislation being considered is meant to improve access to legal counsel for those accused of crimes. (The federal courts house the federal public defenders.)

The bill would also include two more elements not already mentioned:

  • Require states receiving federal money under a program established in 1988 to report on how many indigent defendants they represent. Funding for this initiative comes from the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, which provides funding to jurisdictions around the country.
  • Raise the maximum amount a borrower can repay from $25 million to $75 million, and reauthorize the student loan program.

Deficiency: “Critical danger”

Since February, judges in Multnomah County Circuit Court have dropped criminal charges against about 300 individuals. On November 21st, District Attorney Mike Schmidt called the lack of supplies an “urgent threat to public safety.”

From his statement in Bonamici’s announcement:

A criminal prosecution cannot proceed in the absence of counsel.

Equal importance should be given to the rights of both the accused and the accused themselves in any fair system of justice. Victims and the accused cannot get justice when there is a dearth of public defenders to take on cases and an absence of fresh lawyers entering the field because of the high entry barrier and the lack of job security.

The goal of the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal (EQUAL) Defense Act is to create “safer, more just communities by improving access to legal representation.”

Reports of public defender shortages have come in from all around the state.

After a scandal earlier this year, a reconstituted Commission on Public Defense Services fired Stephen Singer as executive director of the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, which handles legal counsel for criminal defendants.

Chief Justice Martha Walters of Oregon dissolved the whole nine-member commission on August 16 after it failed to fire him on August 11. She reappointed four of them, but on August 18, the new commission voted 6-2 to dismiss Singer, who had sued the state the previous October 11.

Legal Advisor’s Statement

Here is Schmidt’s complete statement from November 21:

Over my protest based on victims’ rights, a judge in Multnomah County Circuit Court dismissed the first of what is now approaching 300 cases owing to a shortage of defense counsel in February of this year.

Since then, cases have been postponed weekly in the hopes that a public defender will become available, dismissed outright, or dismissed after being set over, in some cases well past the statute of limitations for the underlying offense.

It forces the courts to release defendants without giving prosecutors a chance to ask for bail or stipulate terms for their release. And things are not improving. A defendant who allegedly rammed a car into a school bus full of children, forcing the evacuation of the bus because of a leak, was released from jail just 24 hours after his arrest last week for lack of a defense attorney.

A victim is waiting for justice for practically every criminal who cannot afford legal representation. As the crisis has dragged on for months, many people have still not had their day in court, while others have had their cases dismissed.

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For crime victims in our community, this means that their pain will be ignored and their community will convey the wrong message. It wastes limited police and prosecutorial resources and sends a message to criminals that they will not be held responsible for their actions. There is an immediate and ongoing risk to public safety as long as this crisis continues.

As soon as possible, prosecutors in my office have and will republish cases that were previously dismissed. The collapse of one part of our legal system will not cause us to abandon victims.

Moreover, beginning today, my office will publish every case dismissed or set over as a result of this situation on a weekly basis until it is rectified. The public has to be equipped with this knowledge in order to comprehend the gravity of the current problem.

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