According to a new analysis, judges in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, have dismissed more than 200 felony cases since February due to a lack of public defenders. Some of these cases involved allegations of child abuse and other violent assaults. Observe on Watch
Chris Day, a Tri-Met bus driver, told Oregon Live that the goal of the legal system is to get people the assistance they require. And if they don’t receive assistance, things will only get worse.
Day claimed that earlier this year, when he refused to let a bus passenger off a half-block before her stop, she beat him with a mace. He told the media shortly after the incident that it was the third time while working that he had been attacked by a passenger. Day’s case is one of many that judges have dismissed this year.
It’s intolerable, said Day. “How should I put it? You never know when the next assault will occur. Additionally, you don’t feel safe.”
This week, a report by Oregon Live looked at a list of 220 defendants accused of felonies and 75 accused of misdemeanors who had cases dismissed by county judges since February because there weren’t enough public defenders.
The source pointed out that the majority of cases involved allegations of auto theft, people eluding the law, or illegal firearm possession. However, in other instances, suspects were accused of committing “person crimes,” such as beating, assaulting, or threatening a victim in the county.
A case in which a visibly swollen 11-year-old girl told police she did not want to go home because her mother allegedly beat her and another in which a real estate agent sustained seven broken bones and a collapsed lung after being struck by a suspected drunk driver were both dismissed. According to Oregon Live, the accident forced the real estate agent to take an early retirement.
According to a report from the American Bar Association published in January, Oregon only has 31% of the public defenders it requires to function efficiently. The report stated that in order to handle the caseload, each existing attorney would need to put in more than 26 hours per day during the workweek.
The only public defense system in the nation that solely depends on contractors is Oregon’s. Large nonprofit defense firms, co-operative networks of independent private defense lawyers, or independent lawyers with discretion over accepting cases are the three options for receiving cases.
In an unprecedented move last month, Democratic Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt made all cases in the county that had been dismissed by judge’s public in order to draw attention to the “urgent threat” to public safety that the public defense staffing shortage poses.
Schmidt said in a statement last month that “this sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable, and their harm will go unaddressed. It also sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources.”
“He wants people to understand how big a deal this is,” Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Schmidt’s office, added at the time.
Schmidt told Oregon Live this week that while he recognizes that judges cannot dismiss cases, the situation is “horrendous.”
“It’s terrible. A victim is being told this by my attorneys. Hey, sorry, your case was dismissed because the defendant was not represented by counsel. Where are the rights of the victim in that? There are many unpleasant conversations we must have with people,” he told the publication.
Schmidt added that if the public defender shortages are resolved, he will re-file the charges, but he must do so before the felony statute of limitations expires under such a plan.
In a previous statement to The Associated Press, the executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services said she would collaborate with Schmidt “to address this systemic access to justice emergency.”
Multnomah County’s public defender shortages are not unique, according to Oregon Live, which found that 10 out of the state’s 36 counties are also dealing with similar staffing issues.