Public Defenders

Oregon's overburdened public defender system is 'buckling before our eyes'

  • Print

scales of justice

Image from Shutterstock.

The public defender system in Oregon is so overburdened that several hundred defendants don’t have legal representation at any given time.

Some judges have dismissed cases, and some have threatened to hold the state public defenders office in contempt for failing to provide lawyers for indigent defendants, the Associated Press reports.

Kelly Simon, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, told the AP that the group hasn’t ruled out litigation. The system is “buckling before our eyes,” Simon said.

The public defender system in Oregon is the only one in the nation that relies entirely on contracted services to provide representation, according to the AP. The state contracts with nonprofit defense firms, groups of lawyers or independent attorneys.

But there aren’t enough lawyers available amid a post-pandemic onslaught of cases. Some nonprofit firms are refusing to take new cases because of high workloads, and some private attorneys are turning down work because of low pay, late payments and too much work.

At current caseloads, the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services needs another 1,296 full-time equivalent defense lawyers, according to a January report by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, prepared with Moss Adams.

To provide effective assistance of counsel currently, all 592 contract public defense attorneys in Oregon would have to work 26.6 hours per working day to provide effective assistance of counsel, the report said.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.