In a sign of mounting frustration, Multnomah County’s top prosecutor Monday released a list of the cases of nearly 300 people who have had charges dismissed against them this year because no public defenders were available to represent them.
People accused of car theft, fleeing police and illegally carrying guns were most likely to walk free, according to the list. But dropped cases also include accusations of lower level assaults, domestic violence, burglary, identity theft, intoxicated driving and hit-and-run driving.
District Attorney Mike Schmidt said in a statement that he wants the public to understand the severity of the public defense crisis and that without a long-term solution the emergency will continue to pose an “urgent threat” to the community’s safety.
Schmidt’s move to publicize all cases that judges have dismissed — believed to be a first in Oregon — raises public awareness but also clearly is a gambit to put public pressure on the state to find a remedy.
“This sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable, and their harm will go unaddressed,” Schmidt said. “It also sends a message to individuals who have committed a crime that there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources.”
He’s also pledging to post the cases of freshly liberated defendants on his office’s website each week until the system moves toward a sustainable fix.
Beyond noting the cases publicly, Schmidt has little recourse to deal with the dismissals, said Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for his office.
“He wants people to understand how big a deal this is,” she said.
The DA’s office hopes to restart prosecutions against dismissed criminal defendants when public defenders become available, but the future is uncertain.
On the flip side of the crisis, people facing charges have said they languish in limbo with no chance to defend themselves — and live with the worry that the court system may reactivate their cases in coming years. The statute of limitations is often two years for misdemeanors and three years for felonies.
Statewide, as of Monday more than 750 people have been charged with an array of crimes but haven’t been assigned public defenders even though they financially qualify. The system also hasn’t been able to find available public defenders to represent about 600 additional defendants who didn’t show up to court to face their charges and now have warrants out for their arrests.
A variety of circumstances have fueled the crisis, including uncompetitive pay, high turnover, turmoil in the state’s Office of Public Defense Services and new rules limiting the caseloads of overburdened public defenders. Public defenders say while public awareness of the crisis is key, it’s going to take an overhaul of the system to solve the problem.