(Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons)

Public defenders in Oregon may have more time to represent clients as a state agency overhauls how it pays for the constitutionally required legal help.

The way Oregon provides legal counsel for people accused of crimes but who can’t afford a lawyer has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. In January, the Sixth Amendment Center concluded that the state’s system is likely unconstitutional, raising prospects that a lawsuit could be on the way.

On Wednesday, Eric Deitrick, the general counsel of the Office of Public Defense Services, reported to legislative committees on recent actions his agency to improve legal help for defendants.

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The Office of Public Defense Services contracts with nonprofits, law firms and lawyers to represent indigent defendants. The contracts had paid a flat fee regardless of how much time a lawyer spends on each case.

The Sixth Amendment Center found that structure encourages lawyers to spend less time on each case and do as many as possible.

He said the office’s staff has been examining the contracts and confirmed that public defense attorneys were taking too many cases while receiving low compensation. He also said the review found an imbalance with some attorneys getting around $47,000 a year while others made over $325,000.

Other contracts had bigger problems. Deitrick said his staff found administrators of one contract were taking 10% upfront before allocating money to the defense attorneys. He said his office ended three contracts.

The 2019 approved $20 million in additional funding for the office. Deitrick said that allowed a 5% increase in contracts with the lawyers and an 2% percent increase if they agreed to monitor their caseloads.

With the reforms, the state added about 30 public defenders, bringing the total to about 604.

He said that the new contracts are based on a “target quota” of cases. Contractors won’t be financially responsible if they don’t meet their target and can refuse cases if they are overwhelmed, he said. Deitrick said that this will help the agency get a better sense of how many cases public defenders can handle.

The six-month extension runs until June of next year. Deitrick said his office also is revising contracts to move away from fixed fees and instead compensate attorneys based on their overall load of indigent clients. He said the office will be working with the American Bar Association and is considering caseload standards used in Washington.

“They're definitely larger caseloads than I think is anywhere near appropriate,” he said. “But those cases are 400 misdemeanors a year and 150 felonies a year.”

The Sixth Amendment Center report found that the public defense system is shrouded in bureaucracy and ill-equipped to monitor the quality of legal work.

Deitrick said more resources are needed to identify poor performers and ensure quality representation. He said that currently the office has three attorneys for oversight.

Other states, including Washington, have reformed their public defense systems after facing lawsuits. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, referenced that possibility at the end of a legislative hearing before the Senate and House judiciary committees.

“This is really a very large lift, something that’s very necessary for the state,” he said. “And so we can act on it on our terms and not by court order.”

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or jake@salemreporter.com or @jakethomas2009.