When somebody has a day in court, it should be a fair fight. But in Oregon, if the accused can’t afford a lawyer, there’s reason to worry.
The pay disparity between court-appointed indigent defense lawyers and the people who prosecute is substantial and problematic. The Legislature took up this issue again this year in House Bill 2561, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. But again, this year the bill did not pass.
The reason is simple: It would cost the state millions to fix.
The bill directs Oregon’s Public Defense Services Commission to adopt policies that make appointed-counsel pay commensurate with the equivalent position within the office of district attorneys. That change would cost Oregon nearly $20 million for the 2017-2019 biennium and $26 million in the following biennium.
The pay disparity that would be corrected can be substantial. In Deschutes County, a public defender starts out at $63,000 a year. A deputy district attorney starts at about $84,000. And that disparity grows.
Thomas Crabtree, executive director of the public defender’s office for Deschutes County, provided a specific example. A decade ago, an attorney left his office and went to become a deputy district attorney in Deschutes County. For just switching jobs, the attorney immediately made $21,000 more a year in salary. That’s enough of a difference to make anyone think about leaving.
Crabtree says his office typically has not had the funding from the state to be able to offer cost of living increases or automatic salary increases every year. Deputy DAs frequently get both. So that deputy DA had his salary grow from about $70,000 to $113,000. An attorney hired to replace the deputy DA had his salary grow from $43,000 to $76,000 over the same time period.
Money isn’t everything. What matters is the quality of the legal representation. But the problem for Oregon’s justice system is that experienced public defense lawyers tend to leave. Many follow the money that can be made as a deputy district attorney or in private practice. That undermines the experience and quality of the defense, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel told us.
Trials need to be conducted in a way that protects the rights of the accused. It’s essential to a fair trial that the accused have legal counsel. And it’s only fair that the state pays enough to make it a fair fight. The Legislature needs to look for a way to make that happen.