Mar 19, 2024 - News

How recriminalization could impact Oregon public defenders

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Public health advocates and lawmakers are concerned the recriminalization of possessing small amounts of illicit drugs will further burden Oregon's criminal justice system, which has been facing a public defender shortage for years.

Why it matters: Thousands of Oregonians charged with crimes and unable to afford attorneys are often left to defend themselves — a crisis some worry could soon be compounded by the rollback of voter-approved Measure 110.

Catch up quick: Earlier this month, members of the Oregon Legislature voted overwhelmingly to reverse the part of Measure 110 that decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs like fentanyl, meth and heroin.

  • Part of the bill, HB 4002, includes an optional "deflection buy-in" for counties, where police officers can refer those arrested or cited for possession to treatment instead of having them enter pleas or standing trial.
  • Twenty-three out of 36 counties indicated they'll introduce deflection programs but because the bill doesn't require their approval by a state agency, policies will vary on a county-by-county basis.

State of play: If Gov. Tina Kotek signs the bill into law — and she's indicated she will — criminal penalties for possession would begin on Sept. 1.

What they're saying: Five months may not be enough time for local jurisdictions to set up deflection programs, determine eligibility or apply for grant funding, state Sen. Floyd Prozanski told Axios.

  • Prozanski said optional deflection potentially could disproportionately impact people of color and that's one of the reasons he voted against the measure.
  • "So if you're in one county, you can get deflection, but if you get cited in another county, you don't," he said. "There's a lot of disparity there."

Threat level: If a county doesn't have a deflection program set up in time, "it's likely that people are going to start churning through the criminal legal system," Kellen Russoniello, senior counsel with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Axios.

  • Overall, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that "1,523 cases per year will enter into the criminal justice system and be added to the current system capacity" when recriminalization begins.

Friction point: Oregon only has 31% of the public defense attorneys needed to handle the state's current caseload, according to a 2022 report from the American Bar Association.

  • This past January, in Multnomah County alone there were 645 people with criminal charges who didn't have attorneys — a record high.
  • Last year, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill requiring county courts to develop plans to resolve the public defender shortage, but substantial change has yet to be seen.

The bottom line: Not only is Oregon short on public defenders, but it also lacks drug treatment beds.

  • The budget companion bill to HB 4002, also approved by lawmakers this month, includes $211 million for addiction-related services like treatment facilities and court programs.
  • It also increased access to medication-assisted therapies in jails.
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