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Cases are being delayed across the country due to a shortage of defense attorneys

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney for anybody charged with a crime. Often those attorneys represent some of the most vulnerable people in the justice system. But in some communities across the country, the public defense system is breaking down. In Oregon, the crisis has left hundreds of people without public defenders. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Your Honor, we're in the custody matter...

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Benjamin Johnson presided over a hearing this week in a Portland courtroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENJAMIN JOHNSON: Mr. Jamison, this is the judge, and I'm speaking directly to you, sir.

WILSON: Many defendants filtered in, where they were arraigned on a range of felony charges, including this defendant who is charged with attempting to elude police.

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JOHNSON: At this juncture, you would be entitled to have an attorney appointed to you. Unfortunately, we don't have attorneys. We're in a situation where we have very few defense attorneys in...

WILSON: A violation of the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions. The judge didn't dismiss the case and told him to come back in six weeks.

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JOHNSON: Do you understand that, Mr. Jamison?

UNIDENTIFIED DEFENDANT: Yes.

WILSON: For years, state leaders have known Oregon's public defense system was overburdened. But the pandemic made things worse. Courts slowed. That left many public defenders with caseloads so high, some say they cannot ethically take on more clients. Others are leaving public defense because they're burned out, which only exacerbates the problem for those who remain.

SHANNON WILSON: It feels really crummy.

WILSON: Shannon Wilson runs Public Defender of Marion County in Salem, Ore.

WILSON: I think that's why a lot of people leave public defense is because they realize, you know, not only am I not going to be able to make a living doing this work, but I'm also not making a difference. I'm also not helping anyone.

WILSON: Last fall, the problem became untenable. There simply weren't enough defense attorneys. Since then, hundreds of criminal defendants have been denied a lawyer. Some remain in jails.

In December, Stephen Singer took over the state's public defense system. He says the shortage hurts more than just the defendants who can't get access to a public defender.

STEPHEN SINGER: It also means, though, that cases can't move through the system, which means the courts, the district attorney's office, victims, witnesses and the community is not having their public safety needs addressed.

WILSON: The American Bar Association released a report earlier this year that found Oregon had less than one-third of the public defenders necessary to meet current case levels. Studies the ABA has completed in other states have reached similarly stark conclusions.

JASON WILLIAMSON: Oregon is sadly not an outlier.

WILSON: Jason Williamson is the executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law. He's helped sue states such as Michigan, Missouri and Idaho over their public defense systems.

WILLIAMSON: What is required to get any sort of movement in the public defense world is often both a lawsuit and a robust nonlitigation advocacy effort where state lawmakers are being educated about why they should care about this.

WILSON: Some of that appears to be happening. For the first time this month, Oregon lawmakers convened a working group that includes judges, prosecutors, public defenders and legal experts. The idea is to address longer-term solutions for the state's public defense system.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.