Wage gap leads to unequal representation in criminal cases

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel says local public defenders craft thoughtful and effective legal arguments but he notes that experience matters. Deputy district attorneys typically have more experience, staying because the pay is better, while public defenders typically leave for greener pastures after a few years. (Bulletin file photo)

If you get charged with a felony in Deschutes County, the deputy district attorney prosecuting your case will likely be a veteran in the field. That deputy could easily have enough experience — 10 years or more — to deftly apply techniques at trial that were honed over the years.

But if you’re among the vast majority of defendants in Deschutes County who receive a court-appointed public defender — which is the case for about 90 percent of defendants — you might be represented by someone with only a few years’ experience who is juggling more than 100 open cases.

The disparity in experience is at least partly the result of a disparity in pay, local representatives of the criminal justice system say.

At $86,249, the starting salary for a deputy district attorney in Deschutes County is about 33.7 percent higher than that of a public defender, who receives $64,448. And prosecutors get a raise every year, while public defenders get one every two years. After seven years on the job, a public defender won’t even have reached the starting salary of a deputy prosecutor. After 10 years, a public defender will have made $295,482 less than a deputy prosecutor.

A deputy DA’s benefits package is worth $38,232 per year while a public defender’s is $27,126. Deputy DAs are state employees and are eligible for Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System, while public defenders are not.

Deputy DAs on average close about 200 cases per year, while public defenders working at Crabtree & Rahmsdorff average 307 cases.

Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel and Thomas Crabtree of Crabtree & Rahmsdorff — which contracts with the state to provide indigent defense — said it’s not a coincidence that deputy DAs tend to be lifers while public defenders working for Crabtree & Rahmsdorff have left after an average of 3.61 years over the past decade.

The reason for the unequal pay is because deputy district attorneys are employees of the county in which they work, while the state legislature decides how much public defenders get paid. While public defenders are paid less than their opponents throughout the state and country, the disparity is especially wide because Deschutes County gives its prosecutors a higher starting wage than any other county in Oregon.

For decades, Crabtree has watched bright young public defenders leave his office for greener pastures after a few years. Since 1995 he has been lobbying legislators to put the two sides of the local criminal justice system on equal footing, but has yet to see meaningful change.

Hummel, who spent six years as a public defender, said local public defenders are intelligent and craft thoughtful and effective legal arguments.

“In the first few years, you are eager — you are working your tail off,” Hummel said. “You make the best arguments that you know how to make, and you often conclude there is no viable legal argument to make.”

But experience matters.

“Later in your career, you start understanding the full scope of search and seizure law,” Hummel said. “You see issues that you didn’t see before.”

Hummel said on misdemeanors, public defenders are evenly matched with his prosecutors. But on midlevel crimes like felony assaults, burglaries and thefts, the lack of equality in experience is apparent. Those cases, Hummel said, are the “meat” of the Des­chutes County Circuit Court docket.

Judges do have the power to appoint an experienced public defender, especially in a high-profile case, such as a murder.

One way to get more money is to agree to take on more cases. But Crabtree’s attorneys are already working with a caseload he called “unsustainable.” More cases would mean hiring more attorneys, meaning no raises.

And while Crabtree admits money isn’t the only thing pulling his young attorneys out the door, he said it was the reason half to two-thirds leave.

As a prosecutor representing constituents he is seeking the most appropriate outcome for all charged with crimes, he said.

“In our role seeking justice, we have to look out for the suspect’s rights,” he said.

Hummel said he has never heard a good argument against equal pay. However, bills have repeatedly been introduced and died in the Legislature. This year, Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, introduced HB 2561, seeking parity. That bill moved from a working group to the Ways and Means Committee with a “do pass” recommendation March 21. There was no movement after that.

Both Hummel and Crabtree said there is no reason to be optimistic. It would take $25 million to give equal pay statewide, Crabtree said, and it’s not the kind of issue constituents — or lawmakers — care about. There is a stigma around low-income people charged with crimes, Crabtree said.

“We don’t have clients that are going to say, ‘Hey, I’d like to donate $100,000 to your reelection campaign,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree said when he first started pushing the idea of equal pay, some legislators didn’t understand why it mattered.

“Some legislators would say, ‘We are already paying for the prosecution and the police, why do we have to pay you?’” Crabtree said. “I think they are a little better educated now, but I think there is some of that attitude, obviously.

“I think it’s a manifestation of ignorance of how the system works.”

Crabtree said he was recently looking through old emails and saw a letter he wrote after the 2007 session when the Legislature closed the wage gap by about 16 percent. He said at that point, he knew equal pay would never be achieved. This year, rather than chipping further away at the gap, the Legislature cut overall funding to public defenders by $5 million statewide.

“Ten years later, we don’t even get one-sixth the way to parity,” he said. “We get a $5 million lump of coal.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0376, awieber@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misstated the starting salaries of public defenders and deputy district attorneys. The Bulletin regrets the error.

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