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Oregon lawmakers approve $10 million for public defender crisis

Oregon’s public defense agency will get $10 million to deal with a statewide shortage of public defenders, but the Oregon Public Defense Services Commission doesn’t yet have a plan for using the money.

Friday’s infusion of cash by the Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board comes amid growing concerns about the lack of public defenders to represent people facing criminal charges who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. The issue extends from rural Oregon to the Portland area, and the lack of public defenders puts the state at risk of violating the constitutional rights of defendants to a speedy trial and legal representation.

Almost 800 people lacked representation as of Nov. 14, according to the commission’s budget request. That figure includes people in jail and out of custody, but doesn’t include people who have warrants out for their arrest. 

“We have to make the public defense system work for Oregonians,” House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said in a statement. “It remains unacceptable that any Oregonian lacks legal representation and that we have a system without effective legislative oversight. The Emergency Board acted thoughtfully and deliberately today in focusing on immediate crises. Now, we’ll move into the legislative session focused on making government work for all of Oregon.”

The $10 million doesn’t have a specific plan outlining the purpose for the funding, but the commission is required to report back to the Legislature by the end of January with more information about the issue and funding. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said lawmakers who worked on the item made it very clear they should come back with a written report. 

Constitutional rights of defendants – who have the right to representation – are a key reason why the item is moving forward, Smith said.
“At the end of the day, we all have the right to be covered by the constitution and this item helps address that issue,” Smith said.

But Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, said he was concerned about the absence of a plan. 

“I understand the need for this to go forward, but out of respect for those concerns, I’m going to be a ‘no,’” Stark said.

The emergency board voted 15-3 on the plan, with Stark joined by Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, and Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale.

Outgoing Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, urged lawmakers to pursue the issue head-on in the 2023 session. 

“You’ve got to solve this thing,” Courtney said. “You can’t come out of this next session without solving this. I don’t quite understand how it all happened, but it happened.”

The emergency board voted in June on $100 million to help the state address public defender caseloads and modernize. Lawmakers also gave $12.8 million earlier this year to hire more criminal defense attorneys.

The board’s purpose is to vote on special appropriations and needs when the Legislature is not in session. 

The committee also approved other budget items, including: 

• The Oregon State Hospital will receive $4.9 million for 59 new staff positions for the rest of the biennium, which ends June 30, 2023. The state hospital says the additional employees are needed because of increased patient turnover – and accompanying clinical work – required by a federal court order that requires the hospital to treat patients facing criminal charges on tighter deadlines so they can go to court sooner. 

• The Oregon Department of Human Services received $9 million to help homeless youth, with a focus on homeless college students. The money will go toward rent assistance and apartments for college students. 

• The Higher Education Coordinating Commission will receive a one-time emergency allocation of $800,000 to cover deficits in the Oregon National Guard State Tuition Assistance Program.

The commission also will receive $975,000 to help Klamath Community College develop a well drillers program. Klamath County has declared drought emergencies more than any other county in the state and has just five licensed well drillers with primary businesses in the county, according to Tom Riel, director of operations for the commission, in a hearing earlier this week. In June 2021, 451 homeowners in the county reported dry or underperforming wells. Most of the money would go toward well drilling equipment and the college hopes to start the program in January. 

• The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission received $269,000 to support a full-time staffer who can help support a state program, in collaboration with Portland Public Schools, to recruit and train principals and school administrators. The money is to help the state deal with a shortage of teachers and school leaders, which is a national trend.

• The Department of Forestry received about $48 million to help pay for wildfire prevention and response activities during the 2022 season. The largest expenses were for early detection infrastructure, such as cameras and aerial surveying. 

Capital Chronicle reporter Alex Baumhardt contributed reporting.

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