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Public defender system needs complete overhaul

The debacle that is this state’s pitiful excuse for a public defender system went from bad to worse this week when the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court abruptly fired all nine members of the Public Defense Services Commission when they failed to fire the agency’s executive director.

The fact that the commissioners who oversee the state’s public defense agency serve as volunteers appointed by the chief justice is only the beginning of what’s wrong with the system. The executive director who prompted the recent upheaval is reportedly a thoroughly unpleasant individual who does not work and play well with others, but in all fairness to Stephen Singer, he has an impossible and thankless job. Replacing him may increase the likelihood that the system will get the complete overhaul it desperately needs, but no executive director can accomplish that alone.

Oregon is the only state in the country that relies on contractors to defend indigent people accused of crimes. In every other state, public defenders are state employees just as prosecuting attorneys are.

In Oregon, public defense is provided by nonprofit agencies, by groups of private defense attorneys or by individual attorneys in private practice, all of whom contract with the state. The terms of those contracts, including but not limited to the level of compensation, have led many attorneys to refuse to sign them. This leaves many indigent defendants without counsel.

As of last week, nearly 50 defendants were in custody without a lawyer, 750 were out of custody without representation and 750 had active warrants out for their arrest but had no attorney assigned to them.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone accused of a crime the right to legal counsel, and if they cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court is obligated to provide one.

Deputy prosecutors are public employees, with taxpayer-provided office space, salaries and benefits. Public defenders get public money from their contracts with the state, but must cover their overhead expenses out of that amount.

Public defenders balked at recent proposed changes in the state contract that would have required them to take cases in adjoining counties, limited the amount of work they could take on in their private practices and required them to indemnify the state agency against liability.

A chronic shortage of defense attorneys has been a problem for years, but the pandemic brought the situation to a head. Court shutdowns created a backlog of unfinished cases that pushed the system past the breaking point once courtrooms reopened.

Singer was handed this mess last November when he was hired to lead the Office of Public Defense Services. A story in The Oregonian described him as “a hard-charging reformer who was arrested for contempt while representing indigent defendants in New Orleans” who repeatedly clashed with those who tried to advise him as well as his own deputy director, and chafed under what he said were “idiotic demands” from Chief Justice Martha Walters.

Singer’s combative nature might be an asset in a courtroom, but it’s no way to run an agency — especially one as broken as Oregon’s public defense system.

Ultimately, no matter who leads the agency, it needs not just better funding but a complete overhaul. The Legislature needs to create a public defender agency of public employees hired to defend clients who cannot afford their own counsel.

Anything less is failing to uphold the Constitution.