Oregon’s chief justice this week sounded yet another alarm on the state’s deepening public defense crisis that has imperiled the prosecutions of people accused of serious crimes and each day strands more defendants without lawyers.
In a letter to legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown, Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters said the state’s inability to provide defense lawyers has “a real impact on defendants who have a constitutional right to counsel, on courts’ ability to resolve cases, on the safety of our communities.”
She said the Legislature’s infusion of $12.8 million to hire public defenders has not solved the problem, pointing to an exodus of experienced lawyers and the difficulty of hiring new ones.
The lack of public defenders is most acute in Multnomah and Washington counties, where workloads remain stubbornly high, discouraging people from pursuing public defense work, according to longtime public defense officials.
Walters said she plans to hold a series of summits starting next week with the goal of addressing the crisis, with Multnomah County as the initial focus.
Brown’s spokesperson, Liz Merah, said in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive that the governor believes in a fair and just system but “remains concerned that, because public defenders carry high caseloads, are underpaid, and often face off against prosecutors who are better funded, those goals are difficult to achieve.”