WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici proposes $250 million in federal grants to help pay for and address a shortage of public defenders nationwide.
Though the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense Act is unlikely to become law in the short post-election session of Congress, it could form the basis for a law in the 118th Congress or be attached to must-pass legislation. Control of the House will pass from a narrow Democratic to a narrow Republican majority after Jan. 3.
In addition to the grants, the legislation would require collection of workload data and pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors within five years. An additional $5 million is proposed for training grants for government and nonprofit agencies.
Public defenders are often inexperienced, overworked and underpaid. Under a 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, criminal defendants are entitled to legal representation under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.
Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton, was elected Nov. 8 to a sixth full term from the 1st District seat of northwest Oregon.
She said in a statement that she was following up on the work of Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat from Florida who was in the U.S. House from 2010 until he resigned Sept. 30 to become chief executive officer of the American Jewish Committee.
"Public defenders are an essential part of our criminal justice system, and people accused of a crime have a right to counsel.
"Right now, we have a dangerous shortage of public defenders and the public defenders we do have are struggling under burdensome caseloads and conditions. My former colleague, Congressman Ted Deutch, previously led this legislation to improve access to counsel nationally and limit unnecessary incarceration costs. I'm leading the EQUAL Defense Act to finally secure the resources that our public defenders and people in the criminal justice need and deserve."
Bonamici herself is a lawyer, and her husband is Michael Simon, a U.S. District Court judge in Portland. The proposed legislation, however, is aimed at shoring up criminal defense representation in the states. (Federal public defenders fall under the federal court system.)
In addition to the provisions mentioned above, the legislation would do two other things:
• Require recipients of federal grants under a 1988 program to provide data on the extent to which the state is providing public defenders for indigent people in the criminal justice system. The program is the Edward Byrne justice assistance grants, which go to state and local governments.
• Reauthorize the student loan program, increase the overall authorization amount from $25 million to $75 million, and increase per-borrower repayment limits.
Shortage: 'Urgent threat'
Criminal charges have been dismissed by judges in Multnomah County Circuit Court against an estimated 300 defendants since February. District Attorney Mike Schmidt said Nov. 21 that the shortage constituted an "urgent threat to public safety."
His statement in Bonamici's release said this:
"Absent counsel, criminal prosecutions cannot move forward.
"Victim and defendant's rights are equally essential to the administration of justice. When there is a lack of existing public defenders to handle cases, hollowed pipelines of new attorneys to enter the field due to both expense and longterm financial stability, victims and the accused lose access to justice. The Ensuring Quality Access to Legal (EQUAL) Defense Act seeks to remedy all of these issues, for safer more just communities."
Shortages of public defenders also have been reported elsewhere in the state.
The Oregon Office of Public Defense Services, which oversees legal representation for criminal defendants, is in disarray after a controversy earlier this year that ultimately resulted in a reconstituted Commission on Public Defense Services firing Stephen Singer after just eight months as executive director of the agency. When the commission declined to fire him on Aug. 11, Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters dismissed all nine members on Aug. 16. She reappointed four of them, but the new commission then voted 6-2 on Aug. 18 to fire Singer, who filed suit against the state on Oct. 11.
Schmidt's full statement from Nov. 21 is below:
"In February of this year, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge dismissed the first of what is now nearing 300 cases due to a lack of defense counsel over my objection on the basis of victims' rights. Every week since, case hearings have been set over in the hopes that a public defender may be available at a future date, dismissed outright, or dismissed after being set over, sometimes even past the statute of limitations for a given offense.
"The courts are put in the position of releasing defendants without prosecutors having so much as an opportunity to request bail or release conditions. And it's not getting any better. Just last week, a suspect that allegedly ran a car into a school bus of children, which subsequently had to be evacuated due to a leak caused by the incident, was released within 24 hours of his arrest due to lack of a defense counsel."
"For nearly every defendant without counsel, there are one or more victims awaiting justice. Months into this crisis, many are still waiting for their day in court while others have seen their cases dismissed altogether. 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. Every day that this crisis persists presents an urgent and continuing threat to public safety."
"Prosecutors in my office have and will continue to issue cases for prosecution and reissue cases that have been dismissed as soon as we are able. We refuse to turn our backs on victims simply because one pillar of our justice system is crumbling. Moreover, from this day forward, my office will publish every case dismissed or set over as a result of this crisis weekly until it is resolved. The public must be empowered with this information to understand the scope of this crisis."