Primus | PHS Career Day

Umatilla County District Attorney Dan Primus discusses the legal system and his route to becoming a lawyer during a career day at Pendleton High School on Oct. 23, 2019. With the District Attorney’s Office down three lawyers, Primus is back in the courtroom arguing cases.

A staff shortage at the Umatilla County District Attorney’s office means District Attorney Dan Primus is taking up more cases in the courtroom himself.

When fully staffed, the office employs nine deputy attorneys to aid the chief prosecutor in filing charges for criminal cases. But one deputy on leave, and another recently leaving the office to pursue private practice on top of an already existing vacancy means right now there are just six.

“We’ve been short by at least one deputy district attorney for over a year,” Primus said. “Workloads are significantly heavier right now.”

As a result, some criminal cases are sitting in the dark.

“It’s not what you want. The longer a case sits, it doesn’t make it easier to prosecute. You want to move when the witnesses can have a better recall. You don’t want stuff to go stale,” Primus said. “I don’t want people’s cases to sit.”

He added that the DA’s office made a commitment to prosecute every case that comes their way, but that meeting the goal is becoming increasingly difficult.

Umatilla County and its deputy district attorneys reached a new labor deal in February 2019 that resulted in a 2% pay increase for the next three years. Salaries for positions at the office vary by experience, and currently range between $4,890 and $9,598 per month, according to county officials.

Primus believes the reason for the shortage could have to do with the rural location of the job.

“We’ve tried to recruit. It’s difficult,” he said. “We’re not getting applicants or enough people to apply. I don’t think that Umatilla County is unique to that.”

It’s an issue that Defense Attorney Kara Davis, assistant director at Intermountain Public Defender Inc., said she knows well.

In early 2019, the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team made more than 50 drug-related arrests during “Operation Wildfire.” The operation also added additional charges for more than a dozen offenders who were already serving time.

Davis said it’s part of what caused a spike in the number of cases Intermountain has taken on.

As a result, the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services recently authorized additional funding to add a 10th attorney position at the private, not-for-profit firm.

That position has been open for a month, and Davis said they’ve received just one application. That person, she said, was also the sole applicant for a position at the DA’s office.

“We’re not even getting people applying. It’s typical, when the market is good we get less applicants.” Davis said. “People want to live in Portland, and near Portland.”

She said in the past, some applicants for public defender roles at the firm have outright said they’ll take an offer in the Willamette Valley if one comes along.

Davis added that the shortage at the DA’s office isn’t affecting attorneys at her firm, except that some proceedings that used to be efficient are now taking days.

Kelly Stephens, office manager at Blue Mountain Defenders LLC., noted that the staff shortage at the DA’s office could cause more financial burden on all sides when it takes longer for charges to be filed on cases involving the same defendant.

“It’s financially beneficial for everybody when everything’s grouped together,” she said.

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