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Oregon defendants without lawyers should be released from jail, US appeals court says

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld a ruling that Oregon defendants must be released from jail after seven days if they do not have an attorney.

In its ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called Oregon’s public defense system a “Sixth Amendment nightmare.” OPB reports this, referring to the part of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees people accused of crimes the right to an attorney. The opinion states that Oregon is responsible for enforcing legal protections for criminal defendants.

Oregon has struggled to address the problems for years public defender crisis. As of Friday, more than 3,200 defendants did not have a public defender, an Oregon Judicial Department dashboard showed. Of those, about 146 people were in custody, but OPB said fewer people would be affected by Friday’s ruling.

A March draft report from the Office of Public Defense Services found that Oregon needs 500 additional attorneys to meet its obligations, OPB reported. Government officials have attempted to address the problem, including by taking measures such as providing additional funding, but structural problems remain.

Next year, the Oregon Public Defense Commission will transition from the judiciary to the executive branch under the governor. State lawmakers hope the move will bring more support to the agency.

The 9th Circuit decision upheld a preliminary injunction issued last year by U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane. The case came out of Washington County, where 10 people charged with crimes and held in the county jail without court appointments filed a class-action habeas corpus petition through the state’s federal public defender’s office.

Oregon’s federal public defender, Fidel Cassino-DuCloux, said Friday’s decision “breathes life into the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel, which has been an empty promise for too many presumably innocent Oregonians accused of crimes.”

“We hope that state authorities heed the Ninth Circuit’s instruction that no one remain in jail without counsel and that they implement the decision without delay,” Cassino-DuCloux wrote in a statement.

When asked by OPB whether the state would appeal, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice said they are reviewing the decision.