First Advisor

Christopher Shortell

Date of Award

Summer 8-2023

Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Urban and Public Affairs and University Honors


Urban Studies and Planning




public defense, oregon, crisis, history, right to counsel, sixth amendment




On any given day in Oregon, hundreds of people charged with a crime do not have an attorney to represent them. Many of these people are in custody, and some face charges as serious as murder. How did our public defense system reach the point of crisis? What can be done about it? This paper provides a general overview of the right to counsel nationally before narrowing the focus to the state of Oregon. Using scholarly articles, historical documents, footnotes, meeting transcripts, and interviews, I explore the beginnings of court-appointed counsel in Oregon, and document how it has grown and changed over time into a patchwork system of providing defense counsel to indigent citizens. I will show that what we are seeing play out in our courts today is the direct result of an intentional shake-up undertaken to bring visibility and a sense of urgency to a long-beleaguered profession. With that understanding, I will delve deeper into some of the political conflicts and power struggles within the public defense community to show how they have shaped the current crisis and delineated public defense into two distinct camps. On one side are the mission-driven, nonprofit attorneys who want stricter caseload limits. On the other are the business-minded, private bar attorneys, some of whom believe the current caseload limits are too restrictive. I will explore their respective positions and how they cut to the heart of public defense as a constitutional mandate, forcing us to grapple with a difficult question-- how much does society owe the indigent criminally accused?

Persistent Identifier