A Boston-based nonprofit says Oregon’s public defense system has serious deficiencies and is in need of reform.
A report by the Sixth Amendment Center says its review of Oregon’s justice system found high caseloads for public defenders and inadequate funding for the public defense system. Those issues and others can leave some defendants, particularly low-income Oregonians, without proper representation in courts around the state.
The group was asked to evaluate how the Sixth Amendment was applied in the state in March by the Oregon Public Defense Services Commission, a state body responsible for establishing and maintaining the public defense system for the entire state courts system.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the rights of people accused of a crime to defense counsel, a public trial, an impartial jury and information about the charges and evidence against them.
The nonprofit focused its study on nine counties: Clackamas, Douglas, Grant, Harney, Lane, Marion, Morrow, Multnomah and Umatilla, between July and October. The group released a 216-page draft copy of its report Wednesday.
The report found the state’s current system doesn’t ensure proper oversight of attorneys contracted to provide defense services. Some public defenders paid to represent defendants lack the qualifications and experience needed to defend complex criminal matters, a problem the group says is particularly acute in rural areas. Some of the attorneys may also be actively involved in criminal and civil cases, which can create significant conflicts of interest, the group said.
Oregon doesn’t have a system in place to measure whether it’s fulfilling its legal obligation to provide counsel to low-income Oregonians accused of crimes in municipal and other low-level courts, according to the report.
In some cases, the same criminal charge may land people in either a state circuit court or a lower municipal court. People prosecuted in different courts may not receive the same level of defense, the review found.
“The assistance of counsel that a defendant receives should not be arbitrarily decided at the discretion of law enforcement officers and prosecutors,” the report said.
The surveyors also found that Oregon’s Public Defense Services Commission doesn’t meet national standards because no one from outside the state’s judicial system is represented.
Although that may not be nefarious, the group said, the makeup of the panel runs counter to the Constitution because one branch of government has unchecked influence.
The group recommended that legislators mandate that the commission add outside voices and exclude any current judges, prosecutors or public defenders.
The group also recommended that the commission should stop awarding flat-fee contracts to attorneys and instead pay public defenders on an hourly basis to ensure adequate and fair representation for defendants.
The current system encourages lawyers to seek an end to cases as quickly as possible, the report said.
“Even where the defendant has a winnable case, the lawyer’s incentive nevertheless is to resolve it by plea,” the report said. “The attorney is not rewarded with additional pay for the additional work involved in zealous advocacy. Instead, the attorney is hurt financially,” when they do more for clients.