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Public Defender Shortage Threatens Speedy Trials For Local Defendants

BEND, OR -- Like every other region of Oregon, Deschutes County faces a shortage of public defenders, putting at risk defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. Joel Wirtz is the Executive Director of Deschutes Defenders, "I think within the next 90 days, if we don’t have some additional hiring, we’re going to deal with potentially having to stop taking additional cases." He adds, "We have a maximum number of cases that we can ethically and competently represent people on."

Wirtz tells KBND News his organization works with a broad cross-section of people, including foster children and those in the mental health system.

Counties around Oregon struggle to attract new attorneys despite, Wirtz says, the rewarding work, "We see real change among people, and people are really appreciative of the service we provide - giving them a voice, at times, for both them and their family. So, recruitment is hard, not because it’s a bad job; it’s a wonderful job. It is because the case volumes have been increasing over the last few decades and there hasn’t been relief there. As well as, the pay has also not kept up." And  Central Oregon has an additional problem, "Our concern is: can we hire the people? Can we bring the people into Bend, with this huge housing crisis that we have here? The cost, both to buy a house and rent - leasing is extremely expensive now and has been exacerbated dramatically over the last 15 months or so."

In response to the statewide shortage, the legislature allocated $100 million to the state program earlier this year. Wirtz says, "We got a relatively small trickle and it does not really change the historic downward trend in funding of public defense at the trial level." Wirtz and other public defenders from around Oregon recently asked the legislature for more local funding. He says it wouldn't fix the problem but he believes more money would provide some immediate relief.

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