Oregon’s public defender system addressed in bill passed by state Senate

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — The Oregon Senate on Tuesday approved a bill meant to finally address the state’s overburdened public defender system, a systemic problem that only became more acute coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oregon’s public defense system is unique in the U.S. because it relies entirely on contracted law firms and private defense attorneys. Because of the state’s relatively low pay and increasingly large workloads for these contracted defenders, fewer and fewer attorneys are willing to do the work.

The bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday, Senate Bill 337, takes steps toward changing that fundamental quirk of the Oregon system.

Under the bill, the oversight committee for Oregon’s public defense system would be renamed to the “Oregon Public Defense Commission” and moved from the Oregon government’s judicial branch to the executive branch, which legal experts have suggested is necessary to keep public defenders independent from the courts.

SB 337 also appears to grant an ultimatum delivered by Gov. Tina Kotek last month, giving the Oregon governor authority to hire and fire members of the commission, as well as its executive director. Under the existing model, that power lies with the Oregon Supreme Court’s Chief Justice.

The bill promises to increase pay for public defenders and reform the overall pay structure. It also establishes a trial division under the commission that hires attorneys directly to work as public defenders for the state.

Through this and other bills, lawmakers plan to invest $96 million in overhauling the system, meeting current caseloads and addressing the re-trial of prior non-unanimous jury convictions.

“As a former prosecutor, I know how important it is for every defendant to have legal counsel – it’s fundamental to our justice system being fair and functional,” said Senate Majority Lieber Kate Lieber, a Democrat from Beaverton. “Senate Democrats promised to address the public defense crisis this session and protect fair access to justice. With SB 337 we are delivering on that promise.”

Oregon’s chronic shortage of public defenders has resulted in significant negative outcomes for the Oregon justice system. In some cases, criminal defendants have languished in jail for weeks, even months before getting an attorney to represent them.

Senate Democrats said Tuesday that there are currently about 200 people in Oregon incarcerated in county jails without an attorney.

RELATED: Injustice: An investigation into Oregon’s broken public defender system

On the other end of the spectrum, hundreds of cases have been dismissed because there are no public defenders available for courts to appoint. In Multnomah County, the most commonly dismissed cases have been those involving car theft, a felony crime.

The agency that oversees Oregon’s public defense system was all but decapitated in August 2022 during a row over the shortage of public defenders. Then-Chief Justice Martha Walters fired the entire oversight commission before reappointing five of them along with four new members. The commission then toppled Stephen Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services.

Jessica Kampfe, head of a Multnomah County public defense firm, was hired by the commission late last year to replace Singer.

“Oregonians deserve justice, which isn’t possible if cases are thrown out due to lack of attorneys or defendants are forced to sit in jail for far too long without counsel,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene. “I was proud to lead a workgroup with representatives from all three branches of government and public defense providers to design these meaningful reforms to address the public defense crisis.”

SB 337 passed the Senate in 17-8 vote and now heads to the House for consideration.

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