KASIA RUTLEDGE is a hard-working attorney with five years of trial experience. She says she can't turn on the heat during winter months.

"I cuddle up with blankets and hoodies through the winter," Rutledge told the Oregon House Judiciary Committee on April 9. "I don't have television, I don't have internet at my house—I can't afford them. My sister cuts my hair."

Lawyers aren't people usually associated with lives of austerity. But Oregon's public defenders—probably the lowest-paid attorneys in the state—are painting a bleak picture. After years of widening disparity in pay between defenders and the prosecutors they square off against, both groups are warning of dire consequences for indigent clients who can't afford high-priced private lawyers. And they're asking legislators to step in with a fix.

A diagram that's been making the rounds in Portland's legal circles bolsters their argument. The graph shows how pay scales between Multnomah County's public defenders and prosecutors have drifted, from relative parity in 1985, to the point that seasoned public defenders now earn the same as an untested new prosecutor. The trend exists statewide, attorneys say.

"I would like nothing more than to dedicate my life to public service," Conor Huseby, a colleague of Rutledge's, testified before the committee. "The way things are going right now, I am going to have to quit my job in two years in order to support a baby and a mortgage.

"We are simply asking for the money we need to do the job you asked us to do."

A simple request, perhaps, but an unlikely one.

The bill that would give public defenders comparable pay to county prosecutors, HB 3463, will die in the House Judiciary Committee this session. A more modest budget proposal by the Public Defense Services Commission—the state agency that contracts out public defense service—is still alive. But it could be hard to push through in a tough budget session with many competing priorities.

As State Representative Jeff Barker, the judiciary committee chair, told the Mercury: "We're short of money."

It's easy to be cynical about public defenders' woeful claims. Attorneys in Rutledge's office—Portland-based nonprofit Metropolitan Public Defender Services—start with salaries in the mid-$40,000 range and top out, after 11 years, at more than $72,000. Plenty of Portlanders would consider that ample.

But public defenders, as well as prosecutors and judges, say you've got to look at those numbers in context. Rutledge, for instance, says she left law school with $190,000 in student loan debt. She spends more than $12,000 a year paying it off.

And this asceticism is a choice. If she entered private practice instead of defending Portland's indigent, Rutledge could potentially double her salary.

The draw of better pay for different work makes it hard to recruit and retain public defense attorneys, which in turn decreases the quality of defense poor folks can expect. And that's not good for anyone.

A principal argument in the fight for pay parity is that the initial outlay of cash will save money in the long run.

"Fewer convictions overturned, fewer appeals from errors in the trial, and less severe sentences from the advocacy of experienced defense attorneys all save you money," Ryan Lufkin, a deputy district attorney in Multnomah County, told legislators last week (making clear he wasn't officially speaking for the office of District Attorney Rod Underhill). "We all agree this is the right thing to do."

The sticking point has been getting the state's budget makers to agree. The issue of pay parity may have received some attention this year, but it's been a struggle for decades. Seasoned defenders are skeptical this session is any different.

"The issue is, we're not state employees," says Keith Rogers, director of Multnomah Defenders, Inc., the county's second-largest public defense contractor. On a budget, he notes, money allocated for public defense is just a number, divorced of any staffing numbers or benefits packages. "They treat us the same way they do an increase in [the cost of] paperclips or gasoline."

  • Metropolitan Public Defender Services