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Oregon lawmakers OK $10 million more for legal defense

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Oregon Capital Bureau

Oregon lawmakers have approved $10 million more to shore up the legal defense of criminal defendants, many of whose cases are being dismissed because of a shortage of lawyers to represent them.

The Emergency Board, which meets between sessions of the full Legislature, voted for the money Friday. It will be the final meeting for the two-year budget cycle of the 20-member board, which will end when the 2023 session starts Jan. 9.

The board’s co-chairs are House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, both lawyers.

Rayfield said this after the meeting:

“We have to make the public defense system work for Oregonians.

“It remains unacceptable that any Oregonian lacks legal representation and that we have a system without effective legislative oversight. The Emergency Board acted thoughtfully and deliberately today in focusing on immediate crises. Now, we’ll move into the legislative session focused on making government work for all of Oregon.”

The E-Board approved $12.8 million earlier this year for the same purpose.

Courtney will leave office after a record 38 years in the Legislature, 20 of them as Senate president. Rayfield, who became speaker earlier this year, is the choice of majority Democrats for a full two-year cycle in the position.

A 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court entitles most criminal defendants to legal representation, even if they cannot afford a lawyer. The 1963 decision extended that federal constitutional right under the Sixth Amendment to the states.

Hundreds of defendants, primarily in Multnomah and Washington counties, have lacked such representation — and as a result, courts have dismissed cases against some of them.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said in a Nov. 21 statement that the situation posed “an urgent threat to public safety.”

The E-Board voted back on June 3 to release $100 million that lawmakers had withheld from the budget of the Public Defense Services Commission, which oversees the network of local agencies and contractors that provide legal representation. That action took place before the commission declined Aug. 11 to fire Peter Singer, executive director of the Office of Public Defense Services, and then turned around and fired him Aug. 18. In the intervening week, Chief Justice Martha Walters dismissed all nine commission members, reappointed five and replacing four.

Singer has sued the state.

Earlier this year, the legislative leaders convened a high-level work group involving all three branches of government on the problems of indigent defense, which the state assumed when trial courts were transferred from the counties in 1983. (Public defense is a separate office within the judicial branch.)

The group’s recommendations will go to the 2023 session.

Other action

In other business, the E-Board approved agency requests for federal grants:

  • $17.4 million from the U.S. Forest Service for community wildfire defense and $6 million for disaster relief.
  • $5.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy for energy planning, policy and program development under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed in 2021.
  • $3.1 million from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Congress passed this summer, for a state crisis intervention program. Among the purposes: Training, education, and public awareness initiatives for Oregon’s red-flag law, which dates back to 2017; specialized court-based programs; behavioral health deflection for at-risk individuals; and law enforcement for safe security, storage, tracking and returning of relinquished firearms.
  • $250,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for the Oregon Health Authority to enhance training for mobile crisis teams, which the Legislature authorized in 2021.
  • In addition, the E-Board allowed spending of $9 million in other funds by the Oregon Department of Human Services for homeless youths under an interagency agreement with the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department.

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