Current Events: Oregon Public Defender Shortage

In January 2022, the American Bar Association published a report noting that Oregon has only about a third of the defense attorneys necessary to represent criminal defendants. Another recent report states that in Oregon jails, on an average day, around 40 people remain in custody without a public defender to represent them in court. As of January 10, 2023, according to the OJD Unrepresented Individuals dashboard, over 700 people who qualify, do not have an attorney assigned.

Those accused of crimes without the means to hire their own attorney are waiting weeks or even months to be assigned a public defender. Oregon is far from the only state facing these challenges, as Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico and Rhode Island are also seeing similar caseload and system issues. Though a national problem, Oregon stands as one of the most challenged states, the lack of public defenders in Oregon has led to a lawsuit that was filed in the spring of 2022. The plaintiffs request that the state either fulfill its legal obligation to provide counsel to all defendants who request a public defender, or dismiss the cases if attorneys cannot be provided. This dismissal of cases may already be happening in some counties. Though the reasons have been debated, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office has begun to publish a list of cases they describe as dismissed by the courts because of a lack of representation for the defendants.

In addition to being an issue of justice, public safety, and fairness, the lack of public defense services is also wholly unconstitutional. The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives defendants the right to counsel, under federal prosecutions. This right to counsel was then expanded to most state prosecutions for felony offenses under the 1963 Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright. In Gideon, the court explained, “reason and reflection, require us to recognize that, in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.” Since Gideon, the right to counsel has grown to cover even more elements and circumstances involved in a defendant’s case.

Some steps have seemingly been made to address the public defender crisis in Oregon. An additional $10 million in funds were allocated to the Office of Public Defense Services, the office in charge of public defenders, in late 2022. The Public Defense Services Commission, an independent body that governs the Office of Public Defense services saw a major shakeup in 2022. Additionally, United States Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici from Oregon has created a bill entitled Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense Act, that seeks to award $250 million in federal grant money around the U.S. to fund public defense and a number of Oregon state legislators have mentioned public defense services reform as a key priority in the upcoming legislative session.

This week’s Current Events resources examine the Oregon public defender shortage, its impacts, and the general theory of right to counsel. The resources shared provide information and context surrounding right to counsel and the integral role criminal defense attorneys play in the United States judicial system.


Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:

  • Which United States Constitutional amendment(s) grant the right to counsel?
  • What is meant by ‘right to counsel’?
  • How did Gideon v. Wainwright change the right to counsel under the law?
  • Who are public defenders? What is their role within the judicial system?
  • What are some of the reasons given for the current shortage of public defenders in Oregon? Do these reasons sound credible? Explain.
  • The public defender shortage has been labeled as a ‘public safety crisis’? Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? Explain.
  • In your opinion, how should Oregon approach solving the issue of lack of legal representation for the hundreds of people currently charged with crimes? Explain. 

Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions and Right to Counsel Vocabulary

Click here for a hardcopy of Extension Activities CLP suggests implementing with this content





Oregon facing severe shortage of public defense attorneys, Think Out Loud, February 7, 2022

Oregon’s public defender crisis explodes into public view, OPB Politics Now, August 26, 2022

Cases are being delayed across the country due to a shortage of defense attorneys, Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, May 14, 2022

Ask A Public Defender, 1A, NPR, March 16, 2021


Background Resources:

Sixth Amendment, Constitution of the United States

The Right to an Attorney: Theory vs. Practice, Brennan Center for Justice 

Office of Public Defense Services, State of Oregon

Public Defender Services, Oregon State Bar

Public Defense Services Commission, Office of Public Defense Services

Ensuring Quality Access to Legal (EQUAL) Defense Act Fact Sheet, Office of United States Representative Suzanne Bonamici

OJD Unrepresented Individuals dashboard, Oregon Circuit Courts, Oregon Justice Department


Recent Articles:

Oregon lawmakers consider bill to overhaul public defense system, OPB, NPR, April 3, 2023

Oregon judges raise concerns over public defender shortages: ‘It’s embarrassing’, KATU, ABC, December 15, 2022

Oregon public defender shortage: Nearly 300 cases dismissed, Statesman Journal, November 24, 2022

‘I’m so confused’: People without public defenders in Oregon speak out amid crisis, Albany Democrat-Herald, December 12, 2022

Oregon faces lawsuit amid shortage of public defense attorneys, KGW8, May 16, 2022

Critical shortage of public defenders reaches into all corners of Oregon’s criminal justice system, OPB, December 9, 2022

Lawmakers approve $10 million for public defender crisis, Oregon Capital Chronicle, December 9, 2022

Congresswoman Bonamici introduces $250 million bill to address public defender shortage, KGW8, November 28, 2022

The Relentless Mental Toll of Public Defense, Slate, January 4, 2023


Recent Editorials:

Oregon’s public defense system needs an overhaul, Oregon Capital Chronicle, August 29, 2022

Our view: Possible solutions for Oregon’s public defense system, The Observer, La Grande, December 29, 2022

Editorial: Rudderless in a public defense crisis, The Oregonian, December 18, 2022


Lesson Plans:

Chasing Gideon Lesson Plan: Issues in Public Defense, Street Law Inc.

The Right to an Attorney and the Public Defender System, C-SPAN Classroom

Too Few Lawyers, Too Many Cases: Examining Triage in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, Pulitzer Center

Right to Counsel, American Bar Association

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), iCivics

Sixth Amendment Lesson Plan – Right to Counsel, American Constitution Society for Law and Policy


Resources for Younger Students:

Trial Court “Go Fish”, iCivics

Bill of Rights Resources, Mr. Donn

U.S. Government, Sixth AmendmentDucksters