Oregon’s shortage of public defenders has resulted in hundreds of dropped cases in the Portland area, but one district attorney said that’s a dangerous response.
“That is a terrible result for public safety and for victims,” Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton told Fox News. “Victims have a right to be safe and to have their case prosecuted. They have a right to have their day in court, just like a defendant has a right to have their day in court.”
Almost 800 people are currently waiting for a public defender in Oregon, and 76 of them are behind bars. Some of the cases have sat idle for weeks or even months, according to Oregon Judicial Department data.
“This is an example of an essential aspect of the public safety system failing,” Barton said.
In Multnomah County, where Portland is located, District Attorney Mike Schmidt has dismissed more than 300 cases due to the crisis, which he called an “urgent threat to public safety.”
Charges dismissed last week in Multnomah County included felony theft and burglary, possession of a stolen vehicle, gun charges, reckless driving and fleeing from police, according to the DA’s office. Some violent crimes have also been dismissed, frustrating victims, including a man who was pepper sprayed while driving a bus.
“I’m upset,” Chris Day told KOIN 6 News when he learned his alleged attacker’s case had been dropped. “It’s very few that get caught and now the ones who are caught are not getting prosecuted and not getting the help they need.”
Schmidt declined to be interviewed about the public defender crisis.
Barton said the reasons for the shortage are complicated, but included mismanagement and inadequate compensation.
Public defenders in the Portland metro area make $73,000 to $112,000, according to a report from The Oregonian. Prosecutors are paid $86,000 to $215,000 a year.
“It’s pretty clear the market has spoken,” Lisa Ludwig, of the Public Defense Services Commission, told the newspaper. “And the only way to get people to do this work is to pay them more like lawyers.”
Oregon is also one of the only states where public defenders work on contract, rather than as county or state employees.
The state has just 31% of the defenders it needs, and existing defenders would need to work an impossible 26.6 hours per day in order to meet the demand for services, according to a report last year from the American Bar Association.
Barton said there are limits on what a district attorney can do since prosecutors and defenders work separately. But his office started a program to fast-track about 100 stagnant cases by bringing in lawyers to meet with defendants as advice council, review their cases and potentially work out a plea agreement.
“We have not had a single case dismissed because of a lack of attorneys,” Barton said. “And we have not had a single case where we have stopped from filing charges because of a lack of attorneys.”
The state has temporarily started paying higher rates of $125 to $200 an hour to public defense attorneys who aren’t on contract with the state and offering retention incentives for existing public defense contractors. There has already been a significant uptick in the number of cases covered by hourly attorneys, an Office of Public Defense Services spokesperson told Fox News.
Lawmakers have also proposed repaying a portion of defenders’ student loans, changing the field’s oversight and making defenders county or state employees which could result in higher salaries.