Portland throws out hundreds of criminal cases due to public defender shortage


Portland throws out hundreds of criminal cases due to public defender shortage

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A shortage of public defenders in Portland, Oregon, has led courts to dismiss hundreds of criminal cases and delayed justice for scores of other victims whose cases have languished in a backlog for months.

Between February and December of this year, Multnomah County dismissed 300 cases because no public defender was available to represent the defendants, according to the Multnomah district attorney.

More than 2,300 other hearings were “set over,” meaning a court delayed hearings in cases in which a public defender was not available but may be in the future.


In all, the district attorney’s office said, nearly 2,500 felony cases were affected this year by a lack of public defenders.

“The courts are put in the position of releasing defendants without prosecutors having so much as an opportunity to request bail or release conditions. And it’s not getting any better,” District Attorney Mike Schmidt said in a statement last month.

“This sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable and their harm will go unaddressed,” Schmidt said. “It also sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources. Every day that this crisis persists presents an urgent and continuing threat to public safety.”

A review this year by the American Bar Association found the state’s public defense system shockingly understaffed.

“Oregon has only 31% of the public defense attorneys it needs to handle its adult and juvenile caseloads,” the group noted in a report.

Oregon’s public defense system is unique in that the Office of Public Defense Services does not employ the attorneys who are appointed to low-income suspects. Instead, the state office signs contracts with private law firms that do public defense work — and far too few contracts presently exist.

To make matters worse, the rise in crime in Portland and beyond has placed a growing burden on that shrinking workforce.

At least 80 of the Portland-area cases thrown out this year due to a lack of defense attorneys concerned alleged car thefts, according to the district attorney’s office.

Twenty-six of the cases dismissed between February and October concerned a felon allegedly in possession of a firearm.

Fifteen of the cases involved alleged burglary or theft.

The strain on the public defense system became an issue in this year’s unusually competitive gubernatorial race, with all three candidates for governor promising to fix the problem.

Democrat Tina Kotek, who ultimately won the contest, called the issue a “constitutional emergency” in October and vowed to support a working group tasked with identifying solutions.

Part of the problem, experts say, is the enormous gap between the paychecks of public defenders and prosecutors in Multnomah County.

“We have the greatest disparity in the United States that I have found between public defense pay and prosecutor pay in Multnomah County and Washington County, where the prosecutors are making two to three times what the attorneys make at our office,” Carl Macpherson, head of Metropolitan Public Defenders, told Oregon Public Broadcasting earlier this month.

The rise in crime has only worsened the burden on the criminal justice system in Portland.


The city broke its all-time record for murders in November when it logged its 93rd homicide.

Other types of crime rose significantly over the last year as well.

Portland recorded 9,212 motor vehicle thefts between January and October of this year, the most recent police data available show; the city saw just 7,019 motor vehicle thefts during the same time frame last year.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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