Oregon’s public defender system has shown cracks for years, but a post-pandemic glut of delayed cases has exposed shocking constitutional landmines impacting defendants and crime victims alike in a state with a national reputation for progressive social justice.
An acute shortage of public defenders means that at any given time at least several hundred low-income criminal defendants don’t have legal representation, sometimes in serious felony cases that could put them away for years. Judges have dismissed nearly four dozen cases in the Portland area alone — among them a domestic violence case with allegations of strangulation as well as other major felonies — and have threatened to hold the state public defender’s office in contempt of court for failing to provide attorneys.
Oregon sends out a weekly list of unrepresented defendants to private attorneys begging for help. Some of the accused have been jailed without a lawyer for months on charges of rape, sodomy, child sexual abuse or attempted murder, records show. Meanwhile, court proceedings for those not in custody are repeatedly pushed back, leaving defendants in limbo and the courts spinning their wheels.
“We’re overwhelmed. The pandemic is exposing all the problems that we have, the under-resourcing and the underfunding, and it just hit a breaking point,” said Carl Macpherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, a large nonprofit public defender firm in Portland that temporarily stopped taking new cases when its attorneys couldn’t keep up.
DAWG SAYS: KEEP IN MIND I AM NOT A BLEEDING HEART FOR THE ACCUSED, BUT THERE HAS TO BE A LEVEL OF FAIR PLAY IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM. MOSTLY TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT.
ON A LEVEL I AM MORE FAMILIAR WITH, AND IT MIGHT BE A SYMPTON OF THE OVERALL PROBLEM NATIONWIDE, STANISLAUS COUNTY BUDGET IN 2022 SHOWED:
$26 MIL FOR THE DISTRICT ATTORNIES OFFICE
$14.8 MIL FOR THE PUBLIC DEFENDERS’ OFFICE
THAT IS QUIT A DIFFERENCE.
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