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Oregon public defenders lobby for pay, staffing overhaul

acing an ever-mounting caseload, dozens of public defenders in Oregon walked out of courthouses and into the Statehouse this week to lobby for a bill that would fix a staffing shortage and an outdated contract payment system that has some attorneys representing more than 200 clients at once.

Posted: Jun 13, 2019 12:05 PM

By GILLIAN FLACCUS and SARAH ZIMMERMAN Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Facing an ever-mounting caseload, dozens of public defenders in Oregon walked out of courthouses and into the Statehouse this week to lobby for a bill that would fix a staffing shortage and an outdated contract payment system that has some attorneys representing more than 200 clients at once.

A national watchdog report deemed Oregon's fixed-fee contract system for paying its public defenders unconstitutional earlier this year, and the ACLU has threatened to sue. But sweeping legislation that would fix the problem has been stalled in a House committee since April — and now, two weeks remain before lawmakers go home for the year.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson, a Democrat who sponsored legislation to overhaul Oregon's system, described the situation as an "absolute crisis."

"Public defenders are the linchpin to so many parts of our vulnerable communities," she said. "If you care about foster care, health care, homelessness, our public defenders are at the heart of all of these issues."

Public defenders play a vital role in U.S. democracy and are paid by the state to represent criminal defendants who can't afford a private lawyer. Yet in a mounting number of states, as in Oregon, they struggle with overwhelming caseloads, erratic funding and paltry pay compared with prosecutors and private attorneys.

That leads to "massive turnover and burnout," said Ernie Lewis, executive director of the National Association of Public Defenders, which was founded in part to address the issue.

Missouri, Louisiana and Kentucky are among other states where public defense attorneys have workloads that lead to high turnover, he said, while cities such as Seattle and New York have placed caps on the number of cases they handle.

Under Oregon's system, the state contracts with a hodgepodge of nonprofit lawyer groups, individual attorneys and private law firms to work as public defenders and then pays a flat fee for each case. There are roughly 650 attorneys who work under 63 different contracts, although the state doesn't track which attorneys work which cases once contracts are awarded, according to the report from the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center.

The amount paid to each contractor varies, and the amount paid varies by the type of case as well, from $565 to $626 for a domestic violence case, for example, to $221 to $255 for a probation violation.

The Sixth Amendment Center report, which was commissioned by the state and released this year, found the system involved a "complex bureaucracy" with a "stunning lack of oversight."

In one instance, a public defense attorney in the Portland metropolitan area handled 1,265 misdemeanors in a year, not counting nearly 400 smaller cases such as probation violations and termination of parental rights. That kind of caseload should be assigned to four attorneys, according to national minimal standards, the report found.

The center concluded the system's complicated flat-fee payment structure threatens criminal defendants' right to due process because contractors have a financial incentive to take as many cases as they can and pick plea deals over trials to churn through cases more quickly.

States such as Idaho, Michigan, Nevada and Washington have banned fixed-fee contracting because it creates a conflict between attorneys' financial interests and defendants' rights, according to the report.

"We've created a system where we tell public defenders that the only way to get more money is to take on more cases," said Lane Borg, executive director of the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services. "We don't measure the outcomes of those cases. In some ways, we're monetizing failure."

Williamson's proposal would drop fixed-fee contracting and replace it with a statewide division staffed by full-time state employees, with technological infrastructure for tracking staffing levels and case outcomes. It would roll out a network of county-based public defender offices to handle 60 percent of all cases, with the rest going to private contractors who would be paid an hourly rate in cases of conflicts of interest.

States with systems similar to the one proposed in House Bill 3145 include Minnesota, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Critics note the overhaul would add more people to Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System, which has been accruing billions in debt over the years.

The measure would cost about $50 million to implement, according to a legislative analysis. It's among a number of campaigns seeking a slice of the state's meaty budget surplus this year, including proposals to boost funding for higher education, reform the struggling foster care system and improve infrastructure.

The full cost of revamping the entire public defender system would likely be at least double that amount, and the legislation is meant to be followed up with another bill during a future session.

Still, any step toward better pay and lower caseloads has public defenders paying attention.

Dozens of public defenders and advocates have met at the Capitol this week, lobbying lawmakers and rallying outside with signs reading "Fund justice" and "Support constitutional rights."

Charlie Peirson, who works in Multnomah County, home to Portland, said last year he had 531 criminal cases, and he currently has 206 on his docket, about 10% to 15% of which are felonies. It sometimes takes him six weeks to meet a client in person, and he works every Saturday making jail visits for his most vulnerable clients, he said.

"My experience talking to my clients is that there's really only one complaint: My clients don't hear from me, or don't hear from me fast enough," Peirson said. "And I hate that I am, on some level, disincentivized to go to trial."

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 387485

Reported Deaths: 5116
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah59768836
Washington41571393
Marion39592504
Clackamas32426376
Lane29856354
Jackson24672350
Deschutes23182185
Umatilla15087180
Linn14488178
Douglas13236286
Josephine10057240
Yamhill9665142
Klamath8979145
Polk813698
Benton605137
Malheur591586
Coos5573106
Columbia423855
Jefferson416865
Lincoln357252
Union336854
Crook330156
Wasco314846
Clatsop258335
Baker217531
Tillamook214345
Hood River211337
Morrow197025
Curry190136
Harney119332
Grant108314
Lake104016
Wallowa74713
Sherman1903
Gilliam1844
Wheeler1141
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 5061240

Reported Deaths: 74159
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles152548627128
San Diego4047084319
Riverside3849455306
San Bernardino3718825944
Orange3329505675
Sacramento1674002423
Kern1565171781
Fresno1558992246
Santa Clara1511691922
Alameda1246581504
San Joaquin1070001833
Ventura1036461188
Contra Costa1032921045
Stanislaus912991413
Tulare856141082
San Francisco56614669
San Mateo56058629
Monterey52340625
Solano47422356
Santa Barbara47035548
Merced44807664
Sonoma42912412
Placer41881468
Imperial38128769
Kings35038358
San Luis Obispo31294358
Madera26005311
Shasta25917440
Butte25295309
Santa Cruz22028222
Yolo21451257
Marin18342248
El Dorado18166161
Sutter14494181
Napa13372104
Yuba1070088
Tehama10230129
Humboldt10043117
Nevada9914103
Mendocino848894
Lassen792355
San Benito775977
Tuolumne767790
Lake6990110
Amador573766
Siskiyou470954
Glenn455136
Calaveras435685
Del Norte371242
Colusa323519
Inyo254345
Plumas19127
Mono18294
Mariposa156718
Trinity98817
Modoc7475
Unassigned2430
Sierra2170
Alpine1060
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