In an important decision, a federal judge recently ruled that the state of Oregon must provide lawyers within seven days for anyone sent to jail. If the state is unable to do so, the sheriff must release the person from custody.
This is the latest action in a long-running scandal within Oregon’s criminal justice system.
The right to counsel
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that every criminal defendant has the right to a lawyer to help with their defense. Sixty years ago, in the important case Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court held that this Sixth Amendment protection means the states must provide a lawyer for defendants who cannot afford one.
The Gideon decision spurred the creation of public defenders’ offices throughout the country, but states have long struggled to maintain these offices and live up to their obligations to indigent defendants.
Oregon has struggled with the problem for years. According to the Oregon Judicial Department, more than 100 people are in the state’s jails without representation by a lawyer. A huge number of other defendants have been released from jail but are still unrepresented because Oregon has been unable to provide them with lawyers.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a law that promises a sweeping reform of the state’s criminal justice system. It may help the problem, but it could take years before its effects are apparent.
Oregon’s criminal defense system is difficult on its best days, and the good days are few and far between for criminal defendants. Most public defenders are dedicated professionals who are working hard to provide their clients with competent criminal defense, but they are overworked and underpaid and they don’t have anything near the level of resources they need.
To guard their rights and protect their futures, those who are accused of crimes must have the best criminal defense they can get.