SALEM - On Tuesday, public defenders from around the state pitched their plan to revamp Oregon’s public defense system by arguing the status quo is unconstitutional and leaves the state susceptible to a lawsuit.

It was the first hearing on House Bill 3145, which would end Oregon’s unique practice of being the only state to use contract lawyers for all of its trial-level services.

Instead, it proposes 60 percent of public defenders would become state employees.

The rest would contract directly with the state, rather than work for an office that holds a state contract.

The state would set up offices in each county then hire a director to staff them.

The bill was introduced by House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill.

If the committee approves the proposal, it would have to go to Ways and Means which would figure out how to pay for it.

The model change would bring on more attorneys and cost an additional $40 million per year. To maintain current service levels, the state would spend about $174 million per year on public defense.

The U.S. Constitution says anyone facing potential jail time has the right to a lawyer, regardless of financial means.

Public defenders represent low-income Americans in courts across the country. The vast majority of criminal defendants use public defenders.

In Oregon, public defenders are used in around 90 percent of criminal proceedings.

But public defenders argue they are inadequately staffed.

Under the current structure, the state pays public defense offices based on how many cases attorneys take.

The only way to make a decent living is to take on too many cases, public defenders said in testimony.

The result is overworked attorneys unable to spend adequate time on every case, which could lead to innocent people going to prison, or guilty people getting longer sentences than deserved.

The new system would ban the flat-fee-per-case model. It would set caseload standards which would be reevaluated every four years.

The change would be immediate – public defense contracts are being renegotiated this summer.

In the first two years, Lane, Douglas, Columbia, Tillamook, Yamhill Clatsop and Marion counties would transition to state-run offices.

Lane Borg, Office of Public Defense Services’ executive director, said the others can’t be too far behind.

In addition to the poor practice of “slow-rolling constitutionality,” Borg said, it would leave offices currently contacting with the state in limbo. They would likely not renew leases and public defenders would leave town, creating a crisis in the courts.

Twenty-one people testified on the bill Tuesday, all in support.

Many were public defenders who talked about how the caseload is untenable. Gabrielle Karl, a public defender in Marion County, broke into tears.

She recalled sending emails to her boss with the subject line “I’m drowning” and working every weekend trying to keep up with her caseload but ultimately doubting her ability to provide a constitutional level of service – something she clearly said isn’t a high enough bar.

“At the end of the day, that burden falls on the backs of my clients,” Karl said. “Poor people accused of crimes.”

Jessica Kampfe, her boss, also testified about the high turnover rate her office and others throughout the state deal with. She said she constantly hears about the low pay, high caseloads and lack of foundational training.

Kampfe said when she hires someone they come in energetic and passionate. But in short order, they "just get absolutely crushed by the system,” she said.

Charlie Peirson, a public defender for Multnomah Defenders, Inc., said he took on 531 cases last year. A small handful went to trial, but far too many were settled earlier because his clients were scared or couldn’t wait until he had time to look into aspects of the case.

“Our clients deserve better than we are able to provide them,” Peirson said.

But not all witnesses were public defenders. Social workers and investigators testified. Nonprofits testified.

Roberto Gutierrez, policy director for Causa Oregon, said immigrants being profiled and charged with crimes at a high rate then enter the system which can cause long-term family separation and other issues.

Their attorneys are too buried in other cases to fully explain the process to the clients.

“They sometimes end up making plea bargains without fully understanding the impact on their immigration status,” Gutierrez said.

One witness was charged with a crime and received a public defender in Marion County. He said his lawyer was amazing and dedicated. She shaved a four-year presumptive sentence down to one year. The man told lawmakers they could either pay for long jail sentences, or properly fund public defense.

Mary Bruington, director of Metropolitan Public Defender’s Washington County office, said she is proud to be a career public defender.

The work of standing between the accused and the government is vital, she said. But the system is broken and will be changed one way or another.

“We can step into the light with this bill, or we can wait until the ACLU drives us there,” she warned. 

 Reporter Aubrey Wieber: aubrey@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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