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The U.S. Constitution guarantees everyone accused of a crime the right to an attorney, even if they can't afford it; sometimes, though, that doesn't happen. The ACLU has sued 15 states over inadequate public defense. Oregon could face a lawsuit next, Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Dailey is taking the bench in her seventh-floor courtroom in downtown Portland.
KATHLEEN DAILEY: All right, thank you. So good morning, everyone.
WILSON: This is treatment court - a program for nonviolent offenders with drug-related arrests. Many defendants are meeting their attorneys for the first time.
DAILEY: Just make sure you talk with your lawyer. There's only a couple of lawyers helping all of you, so they can only do one case at a time. So this process does take patience.
WILSON: Several dozen defendants who are out of custody sit in rows of benches along the back, waiting their turn.
DAILEY: ...In the courtroom again...
WILSON: Sheriff's deputies bring in a half-dozen men. They're chained together, wearing blue jail scrubs.
KACY JONES: He's going to be residing in Albany, your honor.
WILSON: Kacy Jones is an attorney for Metropolitan Public Defenders. The nonprofit provides legal services in the Portland metro area. She has 200 clients.
JONES: The people I'm representing are typically deep in their addiction, usually houseless.
WILSON: Jones says she spends most of her week calling people, without much success, to make sure they show up to court.
JONES: As it is, my main goal is quickly assessing the cases so I know loosely what we're working with and then trying to contact people.
WILSON: That leaves little time for legal work. Earlier this year, a report from the nonpartisan Sixth Amendment Center outlined major issues with Oregon's public defense system, showing, in essence, the state was violating the U.S. Constitution. Oregon, like other states, has underfunded and overworked public defenders. David Carroll is the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center.
DAVID CARROLL: When we got looking at how these contracts actually function, we really found some big problems.
WILSON: Among the problems, Carroll says, is that the state pays a flat fee per case, no matter how complex, which essentially puts the financial interests of public defenders in conflict with the legal interests of their clients. In February, the state accepted that critique from the Sixth Amendment Center. Starting next year, Oregon will do away with flat-fee contracting. A bill working its way through the legislature would go even further, codifying the changes in law. Over the course of several years, the state would essentially hire more than 900 public defenders and support staff.
LANE BORG: We've had this system over 30 years where we've built in intentional opaqueness. We don't know what is out there.
WILSON: Lane Borg runs the state's Office of Public Defense Services. He says anybody who really examines the system would have concerns.
BORG: They would not be comfortable with the compromises people have had to make in order to make an unsustainable system sustainable.
WILSON: Borg's asking Oregon lawmakers for $50 million for the next two years. That money would only begin to fix the problem, and given all the pressure on the budget, lawmakers say they may not be willing to even fund that.
CARL MACPHERSON: And I'm concerned.
WILSON: Carl Macpherson is the executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders. He points out his clients are among society's most depressed and marginalized and that the state has record revenues.
MACPHERSON: We truly do not have equal access to justice in this country. We have two justice systems - one for the wealthy and the privileged and one for those who are not.
WILSON: The ACLU says they're watching the Oregon Legislature closely and haven't ruled out the possibility of a lawsuit if it believes the state isn't putting enough money behind the plan.
For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.
(SOUNDBITE OF TANE'S "RETHINK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.