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New report finds Oregon public defender system is flawed

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon’s system of public defenders for indigent people is so flawed it can’t guarantee clients are getting the defense they’re owed, according to a new draft report.

Oregon Public Broadcasting said the report was completed by the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit group that studies how legal systems across the country are complying with the constitutional requirement.

The Oregon Legislature paid for the report, which cost $193,000. Report authors studied nine counties in depth, ranging from Harney to Multnomah.

The report found the state lacked oversight of attorneys with whom it contracts to provide public defense services. And the way it pays attorneys encourages them to deal with cases as quickly as possible.

The report recommends making public defenders state employees, or moving to an hourly pay system and away from the flat case rate model the state’s been using for more than 30 years.

“This compensation plan creates an incentive for attorneys to handle as many cases as possible and to do so as quickly as possible, rather than focusing on their ethical duty of achieving the client’s case-related goals,” the report said.

The U.S. Constitution requires a defendant who cannot afford to hire their own attorney be provided counsel at public expense.

“I think there are serious problems in the way the constitutional right to counsel is provided within Oregon,” said David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, who authored the report. “I believe it’s time to reevaluate how services are provided.”

Lane Borg, executive director of the state’s Office of Public Defense Services, pursued funding for the report.

“It confirms what we suspected and gives us specifics, which is: The system you have is not constitutional,” Borg said. “And what I mean by that is, because the funding model creates an economic conflict between the client and the lawyer, that would violate the rules of professional conduct.”

Borg is a former public defender who also spent nearly a decade running the Metropolitan Public Defenders, a nonprofit that operates in Multnomah and Washington counties.

The draft report will be presented to lawmakers and other state officials in Salem on Friday.

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