Portland, Oregon-based reporter Gillian Flaccus picked up on a seemingly mundane local story: A state working group was looking into problems with Oregon’s public defense system. That seed led to reporting that reveals the combination of a post-pandemic glut of delayed cases and the state’s severe shortage of public defenders means hundreds of low-income defendants don’t have legal representation — sometimes in serious felony cases — and judges have dismissed several dozen cases.

An American Bar Association report released in January found Oregon has 31% of the public defenders it needs.

Flaccus contacted trial court administrators who agreed to send her weekly lists of criminal defendants who currently didn’t have an attorney. She then used those lists to look up cases online, finding court documents and judges’ orders that illustrated the extent and seriousness of the problem and provided rich color. She also spoke to public defenders, who put her in touch with clients and forwarded group chats among disgruntled and overworked defense attorneys, providing an inside look at the spiraling crisis.

Flaccus found that those going without attorneys are often charged with heinous crimes that come with hefty prison sentences if convicted, making it even harder to find public defenders qualified to handle such complex cases. She spoke with a private investigator who patched her in on a routine call with a client, an attempted murder suspect who has been without legal counsel since February.

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Cassie Trahan, co-founder and executive director of A Village for One, looks over clothing donations for teenagers and young women who were victims of sexual abuse or traffickeing and who seek treatment at her nonprofit, in Oregon City, Ore., May 4, 2022. Trahan says case dismissals due to an acute shortage of public defenders in Oregon is affecting her clients’ mental health as cases against their abusers stall.

AP Photo / Gillian Flaccus

She also reached out to victims groups and found that, for example, young sex abuse and trafficking victims are hesitant to come forward because of disillusionment with the dysfunctional system.

And the problem is not limited to Oregon. Flaccus found similar crises unfolding from Maine to New Mexico.

The story, with photos by Flaccus, earned strong play, including The Oregonian’s daily morning news email to subscribers, and prominent play on their website.