Long-Delayed Proposals for Reforming Public Defense Finally Get an Airing

House Bill 2841 is an early peek at lawmakers’ plans to fix the crisis.

Sponsor: Rep. Paul Evans (D-Monmouth)

What it would do: The bill transfers Oregon Public Defense Services, the state agency responsible for ensuring every defendant has access to an attorney, from the judicial to the executive branch, and gives all three branches of government a say in the membership of its oversight board.

Also: It requires the agency to start hiring more of its own lawyers instead of outsourcing the job to local contractors.

Problem it seeks to solve: OPDS is currently in crisis. Right now, more than 800 defendants across the state lack a court-appointed attorney, a constitutional violation.

Steve Singer, a hard-charging reformer, was brought in to lead the beleaguered agency in 2021. Less than a year later, he’d pissed off Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters so thoroughly that she replaced the agency’s entire oversight commission—which promptly fired him.

Like so many of the crises facing Oregon right now, this one was easily foreseeable. Back in 2019, the state hired a nonprofit to suggest improvements for its benighted—and unique—public defense system, which outsources the job to local contractors.

The nonprofit, the Sixth Amendment Center, submitted a report recommending a substantial overhaul, which state lawmakers largely ignored. Three years later, they’re finally getting around to implementing many of its proposals, including tamping down some of the chief justice’s power.

“The leadership, for whatever reason, kicked the can down the road,” says Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene). “No more can-kicking. It’s time to start moving it forward.”

Who supports it: Rep. Evans and Sen. Prozanski are co-chairs of the “Three Branch Workgroup,” which was tasked with solving the state’s public defense crisis early last year. This bill, introduced by Evans, is an early draft of a final bill the workgroup plans to present to the Legislature in the spring.

Transferring OPDS to the executive branch would force contractors to disclose their caseloads to the state, and improve the agency’s ability to forecast future need, Evans says.

By 2035, he hopes the state will be handling at least 30% of indigent cases on its own, without relying on contractors. That’ll give the state “the ability to surge, and send people when there’s a problem,” he tells WW.

Who opposes it: So far, no one has come out publicly against the bill, which is not yet fully baked. “Privately, there are some people concerned that it’s going to change the way they do their jobs,” Evans says.

The head of the Sixth Amendment Center, David Carroll, said he couldn’t comment on active legislation. A spokesman for the Oregon Judicial Department said it was “neutral” on handing over the reins to Gov. Tina Kotek. Carl Macpherson, executive director of Metropolitan Public Defender, Multnomah County’s largest public defense nonprofit, was unavailable to comment on the bill.

But don’t be surprised when detractors come out of the woodwork once the workgroup finalizes its proposal. Says Evans, “I suspect a few more moments of drama because, hey, it’s Oregon—why not?”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Oregon Judicial Department controls the Office of Public Defense Services. They are both part of the state government’s judicial branch, but are separate entities.

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