Multnomah County public defenders play an important role, ensuring the poorest among us receive a competent defense. It's an often-thankless job, with demanding hours and, frequently, difficult clients.

And relative to their counterparts in the prosecutor's office, the city's public defenders are paid peanuts. The divide has widened in recent decades to a point where the most-lucrative public defense positions pay roughly what a starting prosecutor makes.

The disparity — highlighted in the graph below—is now the target of a bill in Salem that will get a hearing this afternoon. House Bill 3463 requires the state to pay public defenders at a similar rate to the prosecutors they square off against in the state's court rooms.


"They literally have not gotten much of a raise since 1985," says State Rep. Jennifer Williamson, the Portland Democrat who spurred the bill. "As a first-year attorney, even at a small private firm, you're making twice that."

Which poses a problem for Oregon's public defense system—unique in that it contracts with nonprofit organizations for defense work, rather than hiring its own attorneys. Faced with more-lucrative options elsewhere and mountainous law school debt, it's not uncommon for public defenders to move on after a few years of trial experience. That, in turn, limits the quality of representation indigent defendants can expect.

"There's a lot of conversation about ways to save money in the criminal justice system right now," said Ryan Lufkin, a deputy district attorney in Multnomah County and treasurer for the Multnomah County Prosecuting Attorney's Association, which supports the legislation. "I think the cheapest way to assuage some of that is to get excellent public defenders. If you get people who can do an excellent job on the defense side of things, you really do ensure the right people are going to prison."

Williamson's bill states public defenders should be paid "at a rate equivalent to an assistant or deputy district attorney of comparable experience practicing within the same county..."

The House Judiciary Committee will take the matter up this afternoon. That pleases Williamson, who acknowledges the matter could be a tough sell this year.

"I'm just really excited we're having a hearing, frankly," she said. "It's a difficult budget time."