The Oregon Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board committee approved the allocation of $10 million in general funds toward the Public Defense Service Commission, which continues to struggle with an “unprecedented” crisis.
The one-time increase requires the commission to provide the Senate president and speaker of the House a written report detailing how it will use the $10 million to resolve the shortage of court-provided attorneys. It also directs the commission to report on the crisis to the Join Committee on Ways on Means no later than Jan. 31.
The Associated Press in November reported on the ongoing critical shortage of court-provided attorneys for low-income defendants.
The state is relying on 31% of the public defenders needed to run effectively, according to an American Bar Association report from January. At least 700 people were without legal representation, according to the Associated Press and nearly 300 cases had been dismissed at the time in Multnomah County alone due to the shortage.
Local legal experts have cited a lack of attorneys willing to serve as public defenders, high caseloads, low pay and a rising number of people entering the legal system and needing legal assistance as contributing to the problem.
During a legislative committee hearing Wednesday, executive director of Oregon’s Office of Public Defense Service Jessica Kampfe spoke about the office’s ongoing struggles.
“The agency has implemented a number of programs to address the unrepresented crisis and in partnership with the Oregon Judicial Department, we have developed better data to assess the costs, impacts and drivers of the ongoing crisis,” Kampfe said.
“We are concerned that we’re not going to make it to the end of the session without those funds,” she added.
What exactly the $10 million will be used for was unclear Wednesday and Friday. Kampfe told legislators that a more exact plan would require further direction by commissioners. The commission will meet later in December, she added.
The analysis from the Legislative Fiscal Office acknowledged concerns about approving funds without a “specific proposal,” but John Borden with the office on Wednesday said the state continues to run the risk of violating defendants’ constitutional rights without releasing funds.
“The state can, and currently has been, sued for denying indigent defendant/persons state-funded counsel. At present, one lawsuit has been filed against the state and awaits trial,” he wrote.
In a release sent after the vote, House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said lawmakers have to make the public defense system work for Oregonians.
“It remains unacceptable that any Oregonian lacks legal representation and that we have a system without effective legislative oversight. The Emergency Board acted thoughtfully and deliberately today in focusing on immediate crises,” he said.
The ongoing crisis is an issue legislators will likely address during the 2023 legislative session.
“You’ve got to [address it],” outgoing Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said during the Emergency Board session on Friday. “You can’t come out of it next session without solving it.”