More than 300 criminal defendants in the Portland, Oregon, area have had their charges dismissed because public defenders were unavailable to represent them.
And that means the victims in their cases have been unable to see justice done.
The crisis was revealed last month by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, according to The Oregonian.
“This sends a message to crime victims in our community that justice is unavailable, and their harm will go unaddressed,” Schmidt said, adding that criminals get the message that “there is no accountability while burning through scarce police and prosecutor resources.”
The issue is larger than one county. As of late last month, more than 750 defendants across Oregon had no public defender appointed, even though they were eligible. Neither did about 600 people with warrants out for not appearing in court.
The cases involved victims including an 11-year-old daughter allegedly beaten by her mother; a 75-year-old woman left with a collapsed lung and seven broken bones after being struck by an alleged drunk driver; a man shot in the leg while having a drink at a bar; and customers at a gas station who were threatened by a knife-wielding woman who was accused of trying to set cars and pumps on fire while carrying a meth pipe and lighter.
Bus driver Chris Day is among the victims whose case was dismissed.
“The purpose of the court system is to get people the help they need and if they’re not getting the help, things are just going to get worse,” he told The Oregonian, adding that it was disheartening to see cases fall by the wayside.
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Day, a driver for Portland’s TriMet public transportation system, told the newspaper that in February, he was pepper-sprayed by a rider who tried to kick open the bus doors to get off half a block before a bus stop, got her foot stuck and then sprayed Day.
To date, her only punishment was a ban from riding TriMet buses for 90 days.
Day told The Oregonian he has been a driver for 16 years, but decided to go on disability in the spring after he saw, waiting at a bus stop, the rider who had pepper-sprayed him.
“It’s unbearable,” he told The Oregonian. “How can I describe it? You don’t know when the next attack is going to come. And you don’t feel protected.”
Schmidt said if public defenders emerge, he will refile charges, but with the statute of limitations for misdemeanors at two years and felonies at three years time, is on the side of those charged
Oregon does not directly hire public defenders, but contracts with firms and attorneys, who do not appear to want the work.
“I started with a number of other attorneys and I am the only one still at this office from the people who have started on the same day I did,” Willy Chotzen, the chief attorney in the misdemeanor unit of Metropolitan Public Defender, said, according to KGW-TV.
Chotzen gave three reasons why no one wants the job.
“Because the work is so hard, because the work is underpaid, because the work is so much stress and vicarious trauma in a lot of ways,” he said.
Even there, defending criminals apparently isn’t all that popular. And that means the criminal justice system is breaking down.
For Schmidt, the “horrific” part of the crisis is where it leaves the victims of crime.
“My attorneys are trying to explain this to a victim,” he told The Oregonian. “It’s like, ‘Hey, sorry, your case was dismissed because the defendant didn’t have a lawyer.’ Where are the victim’s rights in that?
“We are having to have a lot of awful conversations with people.”