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Oregon Public Defenders Take Their Case to the Statehouse

Daytime on the Capital Grounds Salem Oregon Northwest United States
By William Vogeler, Esq. on June 21, 2019

Attorney Charlie Peirson does a good job, but he doesn't feel so good about it.

Like some 650 lawyers serving as public defenders in Oregon, Peirson works on a flat-fee basis. The state pays them per case, and it pushes the limits of their representation just to make a living.

Peirson, for one, says he doesn't always have time for his clients. Sometimes, it takes him six weeks just to meet them. That, more than the low pay, bothers him.

Low Pay

Oregon lawmakers know there's a problem with their system. According to a watchdog report, the system is unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue. Public defenders are lobbying for change.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson, who is sponsoring legislation to overhaul the public defender system, called the situation an "absolute crisis." The bill has been stuck in committee for months, and will likely stay there through the summer recess.

In Oregon, the state pays nonprofit lawyer groups, individual attorneys, and private firms to do the work on a contract basis. Contracts vary, but a domestic violence case goes for $565 to $626, and a probation violation pays between $221 to $255.

It's an issue on many levels, including for lawyers who have a financial incentive to take on more cases than they should. According to the Sixth Amendment Center, one Portland lawyer handled 1,265 misdemeanors and nearly 400 smaller cases in a year. That's enough for several attorneys, the report found.

Big Caseload

The Associated Press reported that the system has "some attorneys representing more than 200 clients at once." That, as public defenders everywhere know, is another problem. In California, for example, public defenders reported receiving 80 new clients a day. The lawyers were handling an average of more than 400 felony cases a year.

In one case, a defendant said he spent a year in jail before a public defender interviewed him about his case. The defendant said he had nine public defenders in the course of the proceedings, and they all said they didn't have time and advised him to plead guilty.

The problem is about money, and some public defenders are suing over it and winning. But there's that other problem, especially for lawyers like Oregon's Peirson. It's about time.

"My experience talking to my clients is that there's really only one complaint: My clients don't hear from me, or don't hear from me fast enough," he said. "And I hate that I am, on some level, disincentivized to go to trial."

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