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State pay might keep public defenders away

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The Oregon Office of Public Defense Services is struggling to attract and retain attorneys because of inadequate compensation by the state, according to the office’s biennial report to the Legislature.

That struggle has resulted in higher caseloads, which could impact case outcomes, wrote Nancy Cozine, executive director of the Public Defense Services Commission.

Several lawyers have taken their complaint to the commission and the Legislature, Cozine said.

“Practitioners explained that it is difficult to attract and keep younger lawyers, most of whom have very high law school debt, due to the low rates paid for public defense cases, and that contract rates are not keeping pace with the rising costs of running a business,” Cozine wrote.

In a follow up interview with the Oregon Capital Insider, Cozine said about 2.5 percent of public defenders earn hourly wages of $46 per hour. Attorneys who work through a contract earn different amounts.

Mark McKechnie, executive director of Youth, Rights & Justice, said public defenders who work for his nonprofit firm earn about 40 percent less than Multnomah County prosecutors. In 2014, the starting salary for a public defender at Youth, Rights & Justice was $51,930 compared with $72,900 for a Multnomah County deputy district attorney.

The state pays for public defenders, while counties pay for deputy district attorneys, so prosecutor pay can vary widely from county to county, McKechnie said.