Legal Settlements, Universal Healthcare, Out of Reach Housing, Too Few Public Defenders and an Aging Power Grid
CFM Advocates will take a holiday week off from publishing new, original blogs. Instead, we devote our CFM News blog to important stories from Northwest news sources on major legal settlements, housing affordability, universal health care, the public defender shortage and the need to modernize and expand the electric transmission grid.
Happy holidays and good reading. Our regular blogs will return January 3.
The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis developed charts for several major Oregon cities that show “rising interest rates have pushed home ownership affordability to its worst point in recent decades.” As inflation abates and interest rates go down, the situation will improve over time, state economists predict. Meanwhile, “bad affordability hurts household budgets and reduces volumes of activity when it comes to new housing starts, and existing home sales”.
Modernizing and Expanding Transmission Grid
Clean energy initiatives can be thwarted by an inability to get that energy to where it’s needed. “If transmission lines aren’t expanded, Oregon won’t meet its climate action goals,” Emily Moore, senior researcher with the independent nonprofit organization Sightline Institute, told
Moore says planning so far is inadequate and behind the curve. “We know we’re going to need more transmission,” she told OPB. “But there’s no plan in place right now for building out the transmission we need or even identifying how much of it we need and where it should go.” Read the full story at Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Legal Settlements Net $1.3 Billion in Payments
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has announced major legal settlements this month that total nearly $1 billion and range from opioid abuse to environmental pollution.
Monsanto agreed to pay $700 million for its role in distributing PCBs in paint, caulking and electrical equipment that wound up contaminating air and water resources. The settlement is from a lawsuit filed in 2018 and reportedly is the largest settlement Monsanto has reached.
CVS and Walgreens, the two largest US pharmacy chains, and Walmart accepted a $13.7 billion national settlement for their respective roles in the opioid epidemic. Oregon’s share of the national settlement is $173 million, according to Rosenblum. Settlement proceeds will go to bolster funding for behavioral health and addiction services.
Earlier this year, settlements were reached with Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family and other opioid distributors that netted Oregon $426 million.
Universal Health Care
Oregonians narrowly approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees health care as a human right in the 2022 general election. The Task Force on Universal Health Care, created by the 2019 Oregon legislature, has released its findings to establish a state-based, single-payor universal health plan. The task force plan calls for a governance board established next year to work toward implementing the new system by 2026-2027.
A preliminary update earlier this year estimated it would take $20 billion annually to support the state-based system. The Task Force report said the Universal Health Plan, if in place in 2026, would cost $980 million less than the current system.
“The Task Force assessed examples of revenue strategies based on the assumption that funding will come from existing sources, such as federal and state funds for Medicare and Medicaid. Oregon will need new revenues so that out-of-pocket costs, including premiums, deductibles and co-pays, are eliminated. The Task Force did not recommend or approve specific tax strategies and acknowledged that more analysis is needed.”
Finding a Solution for a Public Defender Shortage
The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board published the following editorial December 18. Because of the importance of the topic and The Oregonian’s paywall, the editorial is included in full:
Last week, the Legislature’s Emergency Board authorized another $10 million to help the state’s Office of Public Defense Services make headway on a crisis that has left hundreds of indigent criminal defendants without constitutionally mandated legal representation.
Unfortunately, it’s anyone’s guess whether that $10 million – which comes just six months after the legislature allocated an extra $100 million – will make a dent in the number of unrepresented individuals. Legislators acknowledged their discomfort over the lack of answers from the state agency on how it will spend the money. Nor could the office say how many defendants will be helped or how soon this crisis will ebb. In fact, even as the Legislative Fiscal Office recommended supporting the request, it cautioned legislators about the absence of specifics, the nonexistent comprehensive plan and lack of transparency.
It is incomprehensible that after a year of high-level handwringing from the governor, chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, legislators, prosecutors, public defense providers and judges, we remain rudderless, simply throwing more money at this crisis without a sense of what it will accomplish. Hundreds of Oregonians facing criminal charges have no one to help them either clear their name or resolve their cases, leading judges to postpone hearings or, in some cases, dismiss the charges entirely (although the total number is lower than Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has claimed). Victims of domestic violence, identity theft and drunk driving are facing long waits for justice or seeing those accused of hurting them escape accountability. And the failure of the judicial system to carry out the most basic of expectations compounds Oregonians mistrust in the quality of our public safety system.
Certainly, numerous factors have contributed to the problem – persistently low pay and high turnover among public defenders and longstanding dysfunction by the Office of Public Defense Services, which contracts with organizations to provide public defense. While a recent change in the agency’s leadership bodes well for its future, the transition adds delay. And even though prosecutors statewide are charging thousands fewer cases than they did in 2019, the percentage of felony cases is higher, complicating the logistics of pairing those more-complex cases with attorneys qualified to handle them. Meanwhile, the familiar problem of inadequate treatment services amid a mental health and substance abuse crisis is playing out in the justice system, increasing the degree of difficulty and time it takes to resolve many cases.
But Oregon cannot allow dismissal of cases to be the answer. That is not justice.
While a workgroup is focusing on solutions to the systemic problems affecting public defense, policymakers must press for fixes tailored to the urgent crisis we face now. Here are a few principles that policymakers should consider to cut through the noise and politics and keep the focus on the need for defendants to have representation:
Define the crisis by location and nature. Legislative Fiscal Office analyst John Borden plainly points out in a recent report that the unrepresented defendant crisis is not a national phenomenon – only a couple of states are experiencing similar issues. It’s not even a statewide issue, with problems occurring in select counties.
In fact, the vast majority of unrepresented defendants are in Multnomah and Washington counties, and so far, only judges in Multnomah County have dismissed cases for lack of a public defender. Additionally, some rural counties, including Linn and Douglas, also have a notable number of unrepresented defendants for their population size.
This should prompt decisionmakers to ask what’s happening in those specific counties: What entities provide public defense services? Should the state change its mix of providers? What are lawyers’ caseloads and which types of cases are going unrepresented? How did the pandemic – particularly in Multnomah County which drastically cut trials – affect training for lawyers to take on more complex felony cases and what can the state do to rectify that? At the same time, the state should look at what is working elsewhere and track the success of initiatives, such as Washington County’s plans to coordinate prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and currently unrepresented defendants for five case-resolution events, to share with other counties.
Prioritize getting data. Public defense contractors, which include large nonprofit organizations as well as consortia of private-practice lawyers, are supposed to submit monthly reports of their caseloads. However, the Office of Public Defense Services, which is reorganizing to address severe longstanding administrative deficiencies, does not have that information. The office is still building out its reporting processes and told public defense providers not to submit their reports for several months this year, said general counsel Eric Deitrick.
The judicial department should be more than a little alarmed that the agency is continuing to send out millions of dollars a month to providers without information on how much work they are doing. Work caseloads, particularly for Multnomah County where the crisis is most pronounced, should be at the top of the list for the state to examine.
Make sure it’s good data. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced last month that judges in 2022 have dismissed nearly 300 criminal cases due to the lack of a public defender, over his objections.
In a quick check of court records of roughly 25-30 cases on his list, however, more than a dozen were dismissed due to decisions by Schmidt’s office – not a judge. Several were listed as “state cannot proceed” and others noted that prosecutors failed to take the matter to a grand jury to secure an indictment in the required amount of time. Other cases on the list were active and proceeding. Again, none of these reflect a decision by the judge to dismiss due to a lack of a public defender.
The Oregon Judicial Department is also examining the list published by Schmidt’s office, finding errors, such as the inclusion of an open Klamath County case on the list. While judges are certainly dismissing charges for lack of a public defender, it’s clear that the Schmidt’s list has erroneous cases that should be removed.
Ask uncomfortable questions. Why is Multnomah County the only place where judges are dismissing cases due to a lack of public defenders? What are the workloads of contractors in Multnomah County, including the county’s largest provider, Metropolitan Public Defenders? How do those workloads compare with 2019? What are other counties doing differently that is working for them? Should the state look at changing the mix of law firms and organizations with which they contract to provide public defense?
Share pride in the profession – and compensate for it: Public defenders fulfill one of the most noble – and arguably patriotic – roles in our society. They champion the constitutional right to representation and force the government to meet its burden of proof before it can imprison or punish an accused person. While the right to counsel is a foundational belief that Americans broadly embrace in theory, it takes incredibly dedicated individuals who are willing to live that philosophy despite public scorn for defendants, lower wages and any personal feelings they may have about various crimes. State leaders should not only ensure that attorneys, investigators and other staff are fairly and competitively compensated, but they must also emphasize gratitude for the hard work they take on. As we are seeing, the justice system does not work without them.