Four criminal defendants in Oregon Monday filed a lawsuit against the state for violating their rights to counsel and a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment. The plaintiff’s allege that an underfunded and failing public defender system has left them without counsel for months.
Jason D. Williamson, the executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, stated in a press release:
There is a public defense crisis raging across this country….But Oregon is among only a handful of states that is now entirely depriving people of their constitutional right to counsel on a daily basis, leaving countless indigent defendants without access to an attorney for months at a time. And while there may be many explanations for the current crisis in Oregon, placing defendants on a “waiting list” for counsel is not the solution. Both the federal and state constitutions require far more.
Plaintiffs’ claims are corroborated by a study from the American Bar Association (ABA), which found critical deficiencies in the funding and process of Oregon’s public defense system. The study found one public defender would need to spend 6,632 hours a year, or 26.6 hours a day, with clients in order for the system to function.
This suit comes after a long battle for reform in the Oregon public defender system. In 2019, a group of public defenders went on strike due to low pay and understaffing. Covid-19 has widened the existing cracks within the system, leading to a letter penned in April by Martha L. Walter, Associate Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. The letter urged Governor Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Dan Rayfield to attend a summit of all three branches of Oregon’s government to address the growing crisis. After the summit, legislators agreed to increase the budget for the public defender’s office, but change has been slow.
The underfunding of Oregon’s public defender system comes during a significant increase in state tax revenue. Oregon also has shortage of judges, which some have attributed to the state’s unwillingness to increase salaries. Oregon has the 36th lowest average judicial salary among the 50 states and all US territories.