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Sen. Floyd Prozanski and Rep. Janelle Bynum
Rep. Janelle Bynum and Sen. Floyd Prozanski
Published: 18 May 2023

As legislators, we have a responsibility to ensure our state government is protecting the constitutional rights of all Oregonians, including people accused of a crime. We must also ensure that justice is served and that there are adequate responses for victims and their communities. But for too long, we have not adequately addressed the dysfunction of our public defense system — perpetuating racial inequities and traumatic impacts of the criminal justice system.

This session, our colleagues in the Oregon Legislature have the opportunity to make urgent fixes and rebuild the system to prevent future crises by fully funding the workforce investments in House Bill 2467 and the systemic reforms in Senate Bill 337 to reform how Oregon’s public defense system delivers services.

Hundreds of Oregonians are currently in legal jeopardy because the state government is failing to uphold its constitutional duty to provide adequate legal counsel to those who can’t afford a private attorney. This denies the accused their right to counsel and delays, or outright forgoes, justice for crime victims.

A key contributing factor is an unstable workforce fueled by low pay, high caseloads, few professional development opportunities, burnout and high turnover. A recent analysis found that 60% of lawyers at nonprofit public defense firms in Oregon left their jobs between January 2020 to September 2022. Many leave the workforce to take private sector or state positions that pay better.

When our public defense system is chronically under-resourced, justice is nearly impossible to achieve.

This has costly consequences for people directly impacted and the community at large, due to lost income, adverse health effects and the detrimental effects on children of incarcerated family members. Victims and survivors of crime are also negatively affected when accountability is delayed or unaddressed altogether due to a lack of attorneys.

A constitutional crisis of this order demands that we allocate available state resources and reserves accordingly. SB 337 and HB 2467 include important investments and reforms to begin addressing the immediate crisis while building toward a more sustainable and just system.

HB 2467’s workforce recruitment and retention investments include:

  • Salaries for providers at a commensurate level with state employees who provide similar services;
  • Grants to law schools and public defense contractors to support recruitment and training of new public defense attorneys;
  • A loan repayment program through the Oregon State Bar that would allow for attorneys and staff of public defense services in Oregon to apply for grants to cover the costs of student loans during their 10 years of service needed for federal loan forgiveness.

The structural reforms proposed in SB 337 complement the vision outlined in HB 2467, such as moving public defense services to the executive branch to improve transparency and monitoring of the system and creating a state trial division to supplement local resources in high-need regions.

Fixing a system that’s been under-funded for decades is expensive. But so is the status quo. Oregon taxpayers spend $51,418 per incarcerated person per year, for a total of $1.14 billion. The indirect costs are even greater. On a national level, a study from Washington University in St. Louis estimates that the broader societal costs of incarceration put the total burden at nearly $1.2 trillion, after accounting for consequences such as foregone wages, adverse health effects, and the detrimental effects on the children of incarcerated parents.

Investments and reforms proposed in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions were put on hold due to Republicans abandoning their jobs. Today, we’re facing another Republican walkout amid a crisis that has grown exponentially in severity, leaving our communities high and dry yet again.

We cannot afford to wait again. We urge our fellow legislators to support investments for the public defense workforce this session — and for those who have walked out to come back to work.

No one in Oregon should face criminal charges without access to an attorney. Supporting our public defense workforce is an integral step toward a more equitable and just Oregon.

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