Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton has hundreds of defendants’ names taped to his office wall because they cannot afford legal representation. Approximately 40 people are now incarcerated. They are among the 170 people in custody in the state on various counts, from misdemeanors to mu*der.
Barton is concerned about the sum. Barton told the Joint Subcommittee on Public Safety of the Legislature’s joint budget committee on Thursday (April 20), “What keeps me up at night is knowing we have 40 people in our Washington (County) jail who don’t have lawyers.”
A lack of defense attorneys has violated hundreds of people’s constitutional right to a prompt trial. Others, maybe a dozen per month in Multnomah County alone, have their cases dismissed entirely while waiting for counsel, and they have had to put their lives on hold while doing so.
On Thursday, legislators heard from Barton and others working in the cr!minal justice system about the epidemic and want to do something about it. However, there is no simple or fast answer.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, and the subcommitte’s co-chair. “I do know before we leave in June, we’re going to have a short-term and long-term plan.”
As a stopgap measure, Senate Bill 1092 is being considered by the Legislature. By September 1, each judicial district’s presiding judge must submit a strategy for dealing with unrepresented defendants to the Oregon Cr!minal Justice Commission.
Inmates charged must have access to legal counsel as a priority under this proposal. A crisis team should be appointed to manage the strategy in larger judicial districts with populations above 100 thousand. By October, the panel would have reported to legislators after reviewing district plans.
Evans and the other panel co-chair, Democrat Senator Janeen Sollman of Hillsboro, are the bill’s primary sponsors. “Without a comprehensive plan to address the represented people – not cases, people – we are going to continue to see it grow worse,” Sollman said. “I don’t think money is the answer.”
Lawmakers think it will take years to reorganize the state’s cr!minal defense system. To that aim, Senate Bill 337 would revamp Oregon’s public defense system by raising pay for defense att0rneys and adding in-house public defenders at the trial level to augment the work now outsourced.
The Public Defense Services Commission would hire trial lawyers who manage the public defenders’ office. The proposed legislation would establish an hourly rate of compensation for contract workers.
By 2031, the law would require the commission to employ at least 20% of public defenders. At least 30 percent of public defenders at the trial level will need to be state employees by 2035. Although state lawyers do handle appeals, most public defense work at the trial level is now outsourced.
According to a 2022 study by the American Bar Association, Oregon has roughly 600 contracted full-time public defense lawyers. According to the assessment, the state needs an additional 1,300 workers.
Short-term judges, defense lawyers, and others are trying to find measures to reduce the percentage of unrepresented defendants. Washington County Circuit Court Presiding Judge Kathleen Proctor observed, “We judges are at our wits’ end about this problem.”
It is already the norm for judges to provide inmates more access to legal counsel than those out on bond and to limit defendants with several exceptional cases to a single attorney. One-day special court events have occurred in Washington County when a counsel is appointed to represent a defendant facing minor charges (often misdemeanors).
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A temporary counsel is appointed to the case so the defendant has someone to talk to about the charges and possible plea bargains. Officials have said that such measures are just a stopgap and not a permanent solution to the situation.
According to Carl Macpherson, head of the Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland, defense lawyers face a wide variety of difficulties.
They must spend much time preparing for trial to have cases thrown out at the last minute. While preparing for the test, a public defender might quickly put in more than 60 hours a week of labor, he added.
Those that enter the profession often do so with total commitment. Macpherson argues that to prevent them from being overwhelmed. They need training and assistance immediately. “They want to make certain they’re not just handed a hundred files on day one,” he said.