Last year Portland set a new record for the number of murders in the city, with 90 homicides recorded. That’s far above previous high of 66 reached in the early 1990s, but Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city officials had a plan to bring those numbers down; bringing back (in revamped form) a special police detail focused on the city’s most prolific offenders and spending millions of dollars on social services and other community-based violence prevention efforts.
There’s just one problem for the Democrats in charge of the city. Their plan isn’t working.
“Maybe 25 years ago in my career, we would see a shooting scene with four or five rounds, shell casings, on the ground,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Kieran Ramsey. “It’s not uncommon for law enforcement now to find 40, 50, 80, even one hundred shell casings. That’s an unprecedented level of bullets flying around the street.”
While community engagement and awareness are up, Ramsey said so are homicides.
“We know if we are doing well just by the number of shootings going down. As a result, the number of shooting injuries going down and the number of homicides going down,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case right now. We are on a record setting pace, yet again.”
Portland could easily see more than 100 homicides this year, and while Ramsey and others may try to pin the blame on guns, the reality is that there’s a person behind every pull of a trigger, and many of them are well known to police. In fact, according to Cheryl Albrecht, the chief criminal judge for Multnomah County Circuit Court, one of the reasons the city is seeing more repeat offenders or individuals charged with additional crimes while they’re out on bond is the fact that it’s taking far longer to bring cases to trial than before COVID caused the closure of courts for months on end.
“It’s everything. It’s the pandemic, it’s staffing shortages, lack of resources,” Albrecht said. “You can’t keep someone behind bars for an extended period of time without a court-appointed attorney. That just is a constitutional crisis.”
Which brings us to perhaps the most complicating factor of all in Oregon’s criminal justice system right now: a shortage of public defenders and extreme case overload.
“There are maybe 150 people or so who have been arraigned in the last several weeks who have not been able to receive appointed counsel because we don’t have enough court-appointed attorneys to appoint them,” Albrecht said.
For public defenders, the dilemma has been years in the making, put over the top in part by a backlog of cases delayed by the pandemic.
“Cases have been dismissed because of the lack of representation because it is constitutionally required,” said Carl Macpherson, Executive Director of Metropolitan Public Defender. MPD is Oregon’s largest provider of public defense services and serves clients in Washington and Multnomah counties.
Things are so bad that the MPD recently announced a pause on new clients for either misdemeanor or felony cases in Washington County, and has been limiting the number of new cases in Multnomah County since the start of the year. If defendants can’t get access to an attorney, we’re going to see more cases dismissed in the future, and the prospects for a quick fix are slim to none.
A recent study by the American Bar Association found that Oregon has 31% of the public defenders needed to represent clients based on case loads of the last four years. That’s a deficit of 1,296 lawyers. Recently, Oregon lawmakers earmarked $12.8 million for the Office of Public Defense Services.
Macpherson said that would be enough for 36 more lawyers.
“So 36 more lawyers is 2.7% of what we actually need,” Macpherson said. “But it is at least a step in the right direction.”
Instead of wasting their time on things like mandatory storage laws and other legislation aimed at legal gun owners, the Democrats in control of the Oregon legislature could be doing something useful like figuring out a way to pay for enough public defenders that violent criminal suspects aren’t walking free or having their cases dismissed outright because of a lack of counsel. The sad truth is that those running the ship of state in Oregon would much rather try to blame legal gun owners for Portland’s out-of-control crime problem than ensure that the basic functions of our legal system are operating effectively, and far too many Portlandians are more than willing to buy that lie based on their own anti-gun attitudes.