"HOLD TIGHT," is a phrase that's often on the lips of Neal Weingart, a Portland public defender with Multnomah Defenders, Inc. who handles criminal cases for defendants too poor to afford a private lawyer.
Weingart's clients clamored for his attention in the crowded marble hallways of the Multnomah County Courthouse on SW 4th last Friday, January 30, as he carried a stack of folders containing copies of legal documents up a flight of stairs to a judge for processing.
He works long hours and hasn't had a vacation since he started work as a defender two years ago: Weingart and his fellow public defenders often stand between their clients and lengthy jail sentences, and the work is as important as it is stressful. In a courtroom that Weingart rushed in and out of last week, a translated slogan in Latin read, "Justice delayed is justice denied."
But as the state faces serious budget cuts, this slogan could become a reality. The state's budget for public defenders, which is already chronically shortchanged, could be slashed even further.
Thanks to the recession, the state budget shortfall reached the $1 billion mark last month. Currently the legislature and Governor Ted Kulongoski are testily hammering out a new budget for the next two years, and it looks like public defenders will be hit hard. The governor's proposed budget slashes funding to public defenders to 6.6 percent below what the Public Defense Services Commission describes as its "essential budget level." Meanwhile, it gives a nearly 10 percent bump to deputy district attorneys.
No one is quite sure what this will mean for the public defense system, but by all accounts the public defense system is already horrendously under funded and over burdened. The state's 800 public defenders could well find themselves stretched thinner with even less time to spend on cases. This could mean they'll be less effective in negotiating deals with prosecutors, and that people who can't afford private attorneys will wait months to have their day in court.
"We could see a potential collapse of the system," says Ingrid Swenson, the executive director of Oregon's Office of Public Defense Services.
In 2003, the state budget took a dive and Oregon was in a similar jam. During this time period some misdemeanor trials were delayed by months. This made the work of prosecutors and defenders more difficult since witnesses disappeared and some defendants stopped showing up for court dates. Some cases never made it to trial at all.
"When you cut defense services it hurts the whole system," says Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk. He adds that if cuts to defense services are deep enough this time around, prosecutors might have to stop prosecuting low-level crimes.
According to the Office of Public Defenders, 27,000 cases were set over in 2003, meaning that they were delayed, "at least untill the following year."
Weingart, who helped shoulder some of the 3,720 cases handled by public defenders in Multnomah County last year, says that he's had cases where the client had a strong claim against the charges being brought against them—but his client had to wait months to have their day in court.
"Even the average citizen can be falsely accused of a crime," says Weingart, who adds that the cuts represent a potential "nightmare scenario."
"The government isn't always right; the police aren't always right," he adds.
According to the 2007 annual report of the Public Defense Services Commission, public defenders are paid an average of between $45 to $60 per case, which is one sixth of what they say deputy district attorneys make.
"We're already operating on the margin," says Swenson.
Mark McKechnie, the executve director of the nonprofit Juvenile Rights Project (JRP), which contracts with the state to provide public defense services for juveniles, says that revenue from state contracts already lags behind inflation. He adds that budget cuts will likely mean that JRP attorneys will have more cases and be paid less money.
"We don't have many choices," says McKechnie, who explains that JRP has already had to cut health benefits for its attorneys and might have to institute salary freezes. The already crushing workload and low pay has made it difficult to recruit and retain attorneys, he adds.
However, State Representative Chip Shields, who co-chairs the Public Safety Subcommittee of Ways and Means—the Salem committee that oversees the budget for public defense—is planning on turning the crisis into an opportunity.
"Every criminal justice policy and budget should be on the table for negotiation," says Shields.
Calls to the governor's office were not returned by press time.