Oregon lawmakers are thinking about a bill to change the state’s public defense system, which has been troubled for a long time.
The state lacks lawyers to defend everyone charged with a crime. This means many people don’t get the good legal help the U.S. Constitution guarantees them. This includes the thousands of people who have been charged with crimes but don’t have a lawyer to defend them.
Senate Bill 337 would hire a new group of public defenders as state employees and change how the state hires private lawyers to handle the rest of its cases. This bill would also give the state more control over hiring private lawyers.
It is the latest attempt to fix problems in Oregon’s public defense system, which have been tried several times in the past few years.
“Those of us who have worked as public defenders have known for a long time that the system is broken. It’s under-resourced. Case loads are too high. Pay is too low,” Jessica Kampfe, director of the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, told lawmakers in a hearing Thursday.
Oregon is the only state where people charged with a crime but can’t pay for a lawyer are defended only through contracts with private lawyers. A 2019 report from the nonpartisan nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, which was asked to report by the state legislature, found that Oregon’s system is so broken that it can’t guarantee clients get the defense they’re entitled to.
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“This is a systemic failure,” Kampfe said.
The Public Defense Commission in Oregon would be changed by Senate Bill 337. It would move from the judicial branch to the executive branch. It would also change who is on the commission and ensure that all three branches of government are watching it.
The bill would tell the public defense commission to hire its public defenders and set a goal of covering 20% of all public defense cases by 2031 and 30% by 2035.
The bill would still let the commission hire private lawyers or non-profit firms that help the public defend itself. It would stop giving contracts for the public defense to business groups made up of private lawyers.
Several lawyers who work for these groups testified against the bill, saying that they are an important part of the state’s court system and provide 60% of all public defense in the state.
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The bill was made by a “three-branch workgroup” that was put together last year to solve the public defense crisis in the state. State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene, and Rep. Paul Evans, a Democrat from Monmouth led the workgroup. Prozanski is also the head of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, where a work session on the bill is planned for Monday.
In his testimony on Thursday, 30 March 2023, Evans said that Senate Bill 337 wouldn’t be enough. He said that more money and more lawyers would be needed, but first, the state would have to change how it provides public defense services.
“As long as we still have the same structure and system, I don’t think the taxpayers are going to stand for it,” Evans said. “And I know that there’s not an appetite — at least on my side of the building — for anything but a comprehensive approach forward.”
Source – Oregon Public Broadcasting Department