PORTLAND, Ore. (KATU) — An order by an Oregon federal judge could put pressure on the state’s already problematic shortage of public defenders.
Judge Michael McShane wrote that indigent defendants are forced to remain in jail because they can’t afford a private lawyer.
They have been locked away without a voice, being too poor to afford an advocate to speak for them in the courtroom,” McShane wrote in his Thursday order.
In his ruling, McShane ordered counties to release jailed criminal defendants if they have not yet been appointed a public defender within a week of their first court appearance. This expands an August ruling that applied a similar deadline only in Washington County.
The new seven-day deadline goes into effect Nov. 16.
Oregon’s short supply of public defenders has resulted in numerous dismissals of criminal prosecutions.
The State is facing a crisis in its constitutional mandate to provide qualified attorneys to those charged with crimes. The problem is institutional, and it is statewide,” McShane wrote.
Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said he agrees that defendants should get a public defender within a week of their arraignment. For two months, McShane has ordered Washington County to release jailed defendants who don’t receive a lawyer within 10 days.
Since August, Barton said the order forced Washington County to release six defendants from jail.
“These are individuals who are charged with very significant and serious crimes. That always creates a public safety risk,” Barton said.
The court orders do not force prosecutors to drop charges.
As of Friday, Washington County had four jailed defendants without attorneys. Outside of jail custody, there are 380 unrepresented defendants, Barton told KATU.
“The bigger public safety risk is the underlying issue, which is the failure of Oregon to have a functioning public defense system,” he said.
The Washington County sheriff said in a statement that hopefully the federal order pushes state lawmakers to better fund and reform Oregon’s Office of Public Defense Services.
“That issue must be immediately addressed to avoid the public safety risks posed in releasing defendants who would otherwise remain in custody on very serious charges,” said Sheriff Pat Garrett.
While Washington County has had experience with a court-ordered public defender deadline, every other county in Oregon will have to follow the seven-day deadline later this month.
A spokesperson for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office said they are still reviewing the order to determine its impacts in the Portland area.
“This is yet another reminder that our state is still experiencing a crisis in our criminal justice system due to a lack of public defenders,” said Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt. “For nearly every defendant without counsel, there are one or more victims awaiting justice, and no accountability for those who commit crimes. As long as this crisis persists, there will continue to be a threat to public safety.”
Prosecutors have an opportunity to change which crimes they take to court, said Sandy Chung, director of the ACLU of Oregon.
She said the federal order emphasizes that Oregon’s legal justice system is in “disarray.”
“We very strongly believe that much of this can be addressed if prosecutors and courts make sure that criminal system resources are focused on serious violent crimes and not low-level offenses that don't actually impact public safety,” Chung said.
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