Major contract ends abruptly for law firms
From1987 until today, if you were charged with a crime in Jefferson County and couldn't afford to pay for an attorney, chances were good that a local attorney, who belonged to the Madras Indigent Defense Consortium, would be appointed to take on your case.
Last week, the state Office of Public Defense Services abruptly informed the local consortium, in a phone call, that the longtime contract, which ends Dec. 31, would not be renewed.
The consortium, comprising three local law offices — Glenn, Reeder and Gassner, Paul Sumner, and the Law Office of Jered Reid — and six attorneys, was stunned by the disastrous news.
"This news came as a shock to the Madras Indigent Defense Consortium, as well as its community partners," said Tim Gassner, who has practiced law in Madras for the past 15 years. "The nonrenewal of the Madras Indigent Defense Consortium contract came without explanation or discussion and represents an affront to the Madras Indigent Defense Consortium, as well as the people of Jefferson County."
Glenn, Reeder and Gassner also includes longtime attorneys Dave Glenn, who has been a criminal defense attorney for 44 years, and Don Reeder, who has practiced law for 37 years, and new attorney Marcus Gipson, who has been an attorney for three years, and joined the firm in January.
"It's really going to devastate our legal community," said Reeder.
"When I came to Madras in 1982, there were 13 attorneys; now, there are seven," Reeder noted. "This is a rural county; it's going to be more difficult to recruit young attorneys to town."
Half of the contract for Jefferson County has traditionally been held by public defenders who don't take on anything else and live in other Central Oregon communities. "The private attorneys have contracted with the state for the other half," said Reeder. "Court-appointed attorneys represent indigent clients. It gives a base to help us with overhead."
Over the long term, he anticipates that it will not only affect the community's ability to attract new attorneys, but also the ability to hire legal assistants and investigators.
Gassner said that they were informed that the entire contract would be awarded to the 22nd Circuit Defenders, which would be adding two attorneys. None of the attorneys lives in Jefferson County.
The loss of the contract will have a dramatic, and immediate effect on the local law firms. For the two-year period from 2018-2019, the consortium was paid $828,312 for criminal defense, and juvenile delinquency and dependency cases. The consortium handles nearly 1,000 cases each year.
"We are paid a flat rate per case, depending on the case type — less money per case for misdemeanors and increasing value depending on the level of felony and crime seriousness," said Gassner.
"That's going to change based on the study in Oregon of indigent defense by the Sixth Amendment Center," he continued. "They found that Oregon was failing its constitutional mandate to provide adequate indigent defense, based in part on the flat rate per case model."
Gassner pointed out that all the members of the consortium live in Jefferson County and have raised their families, or are currently raising their families, in the community.
"They are all familiar with the nuances of Jefferson County and the people they serve," he said. "In addition to providing indigent defense, each attorney is active in the community through bar (association) programs, local service clubs, participation and service to local boards, youth sports, etc."
While each of the local law firms has a full-time receptionist to assist indigent clients, Gassner said that none of the three attorneys in the 22nd Circuit Defenders has a staff person to aid those clients.
"In addition to the diminishment of services available to indigent clients through the nonrenewal of the Madras Indigent Defense Consortium contract, money is being diverted from Jefferson County to Deschutes County, and potentially Crook County, which is harmful to the economic well-being of Jefferson County," Gassner noted in a letter asking the Office of Public Defense Services Commission to reconsider the nonrenewal of the contract.
Dan Ahern, who recently retired after 23 years as a judge for the 22nd Judicial District, also wrote to ask the commission to reconsider its decision.
When he graduated from law school in 1985 and returned to his hometown of Madras to practice law, he said that he was one of about 15 private attorneys in five firms living and working in Madras.
Shortly after his return, the state decided to contract out 50% of the contract to a Bend firm, cutting in half the source of income for the young local attorneys who had chosen to represent indigent clients.
Currently, three of the local attorneys are near or over age 70.
"I firmly believe the reduced number of attorneys and the inability to attract younger attorneys to Jefferson County can directly be tied to the state's decision to contract indigent defense with firms and consortiums that don't have a local presence," he wrote. "That is why your recent decision is so harmful to the local bar."
"In small communities, attorneys are often community leaders," said Ahern. "The local attorneys volunteer countless hours to service clubs, churches and school groups. The financial security of the indigent defense contract makes it possible for the local attorneys to do more pro bono legal work."
"The loss of revenue, and as a result, the almost certain loss of attorneys, will have a ripple effect on our small community much greater than I believe your commission can appreciate," he wrote.
Ahern believes that the commission's decision will be harmful to indigent clients, as well.
"Jefferson County is a very racially diverse county," he noted. "It means something to indigent defendants when the attorney representing them lives in their community and sends their kids to the same schools that (the client's) kids attends."
"No matter how good the attorneys commuting from Deschutes County are, the indigent defendants will be harmed by the lack of common community connection," said Ahern.
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