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Lawsuit: Oregon failing to provide attorneys to people charged with crimes

Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, Ore., May 19, 2021.

Despite a constitutional right to an attorney, approximately 500 people charged with crimes have been denied a public defender, according to a lawsuit filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Four people facing criminal charges filed a class-action lawsuit Friday asserting the State of Oregon has failed to provide them and hundreds of others with court-appointed attorneys. The plaintiffs argue the state is committing a “clear violation of basic standards of justice” by not upholding the protections afforded to everyone under the U.S. and Oregon constitutions. Black defendants have been disproportionately harmed by the state’s failures, according to the lawsuit.

“The court deemed each of them to be unable to hire a private attorney and eligible for a court-appointed attorney,” according to the 10-page complaint, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court. “However, the state has not provided them with a lawyer nor dismissed the charges against them.”

For years, Oregon’s leaders have known that a lawsuit over the state’s public defense system was a possibility. By law, anyone arrested and charged with a crime should be informed of their right to a state-provided attorney if they cannot afford one. Since it can easily cost thousands of dollars to retain a private criminal defense lawyer, many people cannot afford to hire one.

Oregon courts began to see new signs last fall that the public defense system was overly stressed, leaving some people charged with crimes without an attorney. Since then, the problem has grown into a crisis.

According to the lawsuit, as of Thursday, approximately 500 people statewide who were charged with crimes were waiting for a public defender. Of those, 33 were in custody. Though, as the lawsuit states, the number of people without a public defender is “constantly changing as the State haphazardly appoints counsel.”

“The State may appoint counsel in a given case after the defendant has waited weeks or months for an attorney,” the lawsuit states. “But the number of unrepresented people in Oregon continues to grow as more defendants are subject to the deprivation of counsel each day.”

Black defendants in need of a lawyer are disproportionately affected by the shortage of public defenders, the lawsuit states. For example, on Wednesday in Multnomah County, 20% of the people without an appointed public defender identified as Black, despite Black residents making up less than 6% of the county’s population.

“Black indigent defendants are more likely to be subjected to pretrial detention, prosecuted, convicted, sentenced to jail or prison, placed on probation, and sanctioned with jail time for a post-prison supervision or probation violation,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit notes the Office of Public Defense Services, an independent state agency, is responsible for ensuring criminal defendants have access to public defenders. In addition to the State of Oregon, the lawsuit names Gov. Kate Brown and the public defense office’s executive director Stephen Singer, who started in December.

This article will be updated.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.