Pandemic pushes Oregon’s public defender system to the brink

May 7, 2022, 9:05 PM | Updated: May 8, 2022, 5:55 am
Carl Macpherson, executive director at Metropolitan Public Defender, examines the file in a double ...

Carl Macpherson, executive director at Metropolitan Public Defender, examines the file in a double murder case that was recently pushed back for trial in his office in Portland, Ore., on May 5, 2022. Macpherson says his firm of 90 public defenders recently stopped taking certain types of new criminal cases for a month in two local courts because they had so many cases that the attorneys were violating their ethical obligations to clients. A post-pandemic glut of delayed cases has exposed shocking constitutional landmines impacting defendants and crime victims alike in Oregon, where an acute shortage of public defenders has even led judges to dismiss serious cases. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

(AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A post-pandemic glut of delayed cases has exposed shocking constitutional landmines impacting defendants and crime victims alike in Oregon, a state with a national reputation for progressive social justice.

An acute shortage of public defenders means at any given time at least several hundred low-income criminal defendants don’t have legal representation, sometimes in serious felony cases that could put them away for years.

Judges have dismissed nearly four dozen cases in in the Portland area alone — including a domestic violence case with allegations of strangulation — and have threatened to hold the state in contempt.

“We’re overwhelmed. The pandemic is exposing all the problems that we have,” said Carl Macpherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, a large Portland nonprofit public defender firm. “It just became abundantly clear that we are broken.”

Public defenders warned the system was on the brink of collapse before the pandemic and some staged a walkout in 2019. But lawmakers didn’t act and then COVID-19 shut down the courts. Now, the system is “buckling before our eyes,” said Kelly Simon, legal director for the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union.

The crisis in Oregon, while extreme, reflects a nationwide reckoning on indigent defense, as courts seek to absorb a pandemic backlog of criminal cases with public defender systems that have long been underfunded and understaffed. From New England to New Mexico to Wisconsin, states are struggling to keep public defender services running.

Maine this month earmarked nearly $1 million to hire that state’s first five public defenders, with a focus on rural counties, after relying entirely on contracts with private attorneys until now.

In New Mexico, a recent report found the state was short 600 full-time public defenders. In New Hampshire, where an estimated 800 defendants were without attorneys, state lawmakers in March approved more than $2 million to raise public defenders’ salaries. And in Wisconsin, where starting pay for public defenders is $27 an hour, there’s a shortage of 60 attorney positions statewide.

“This is America’s dirty little secret: Thousands of people in courtrooms all across the country go to jail every single day without having talked to a lawyer,” said Jon Mosher, deputy director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center.

An American Bar Association report released in January found Oregon has 31% of the public defenders it needs. Every existing attorney would have to work more than 26 hours each week day to cover the caseload, the authors found.

“It’s horrifying. I don’t want to mince words about this. I am not going to make excuses for this,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who co-chairs the state Legislature’s Ways and Means committee. “That being said, we can’t manufacture attorneys out of thin air.”

For victims, the situation is devastating and it’s hurting the most vulnerable.

Cassie Trahan, co-founder and executive director of an Oregon nonprofit that works with teen and young adult victims of sex trafficking, said trust in the judicial system is fading, especially in minority and immigrant communities. Victims no longer want to come forward when they see cases being dismissed or ending in weak plea bargains to relieve pressure on the courts.

One such victim in a pending trafficking case “lives in constant fear that it’s going to be dismissed,” Trahan said.

Prosecutors can get an indictment from a grand jury when cases are dismissed for lack of a public defender and police will re-arrest the alleged perpetrator — but that’s small consolation to victims.

“In her mind, it’s like, ‘Now I’ve outed myself, now I’ve talked against him and what’s going to happen if he gets off?'” Trahan said of the victim. “That’s what we’re seeing more of, especially in communities of color and groups that don’t trust the judicial system anyway.”

The Legislature recently approved $12.8 million in one-time funding for the four hardest-hit counties, as well as a suite of legislative reforms. New contracts coming this summer will institute lower attorney case caps. And lawmakers are withholding $100 million from the agency’s budget until shows good faith on numerous reforms, including restructuring, financial audits and performance metrics.

A working group of all three government branches will convene this month to begin tackling a “comprehensive and structural modernization” of the system.

Autumn Shreve, government relations manager for the state Office of Public Defense Services, said the pandemic finally forced the hand of state lawmakers who haven’t taken a close look at public defenders in nearly 20 years.

“It’s been a rag tag group of people trying to cover the caseloads year-to-year and because of that there’s been a lot of past papering over of problems,” she said.

Meanwhile, the situation in the state’s courtrooms is dire.

Often those going without attorneys are charged with heinous crimes that come with hefty prison sentences if convicted, making it even harder to find public defenders qualified to handle such complex cases. And those who handle misdemeanors are often young attorneys carrying 100 cases or more at a time.

“You can’t keep everything in your head when you have that many clients at the same time. Even things like, you know, ‘What’s your current plea offer?’ I can’t remember that for 100 people. Or I can’t remember, ‘What exactly does the police report say?’ said Drew Flood, a public defender at Metropolitan Public Defender.

“This is the scariest thing they have going on in their life,” he said.

Other public defender services, including private investigators and legal advisors, have also reached a breaking point.

Renardo Mitchell, who is jailed on attempted murder charges, chose to represent himself after he said he didn’t hear from his public defender for five months. The legal advisor assigned by the court to help him hire expert witnesses and file motions died suddenly in February and he’s been without legal counsel since then.

Two years after his arrest, he still hasn’t seen all the discovery in his case, said Mitchell, 37. His public private investigator — Mitchell’s only connection to his proceedings — recently had to petition the court to get more paid hours developing evidence for his defense.

“We’re all innocent until proven guilty. Nothing has been proven yet — I haven’t been found guilty,” said Mitchell, who faces more than 22 years in prison if convicted. “Even if I did those things that they allege, I still have a right to due process of law. “

The chief prosecutor in Portland has become an outspoken advocate of public defender reform for that very reason.

“The most important thing is everybody has a right to an attorney, it’s a constitutional right,” said Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schmidt.

“It’s an ecosystem, like a coral reef. If you take away one aspect of this system, then all the other aspects fall apart.”


Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin; and Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire contributed to this report.


Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


(Facebook Photo/City of San Luis, Arizona)...
Associated Press

San Luis authorities receive complaints about 911 calls going across border

Authorities in San Luis say they are receiving more complaints about 911 calls mistakenly going across the border.
4 days ago
(Pexels Photo)...
Associated Press

Daylight saving time begins in most of US this weekend

No time change is observed in Hawaii, most of Arizona, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
12 days ago
Mexican army soldiers prepare a search mission for four U.S. citizens kidnapped by gunmen in Matamo...
Associated Press

How the 4 abducted Americans in Mexico were located

The anonymous tip that led Mexican authorities to a remote shack where four abducted Americans were held described armed men and blindfolds.
12 days ago
Tom Brundy points to a newly built irrigation canal on one of the fields at his farm Tuesday, Feb. ...
Associated Press

Southwest farmers reluctant to idle farmland to save water

There is a growing sense that fallowing will have to be part of the solution to the increasingly desperate drought in the West.
19 days ago
A young bison calf stands in a pond with its herd at Bull Hollow, Okla., on Sept. 27, 2022. The cal...
Associated Press

US aims to restore bison herds to Native American lands after near extinction

U.S. officials will work to restore more large bison herds to Native American lands under a Friday order from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
19 days ago
(Photo: OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center)...
Sponsored Content by OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

Here's what you need to know about OCD and where to find help

It's fair to say that most people know what obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders generally are, but there's a lot more information than meets the eye about a mental health diagnosis that affects about one in every 100 adults in the United States.

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
Pandemic pushes Oregon’s public defender system to the brink