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story.lead_photo.caption The outside of the Carnegie Building, located at 210 Adams Street in Jefferson City, is shown in this Jan. 7, 2009 News Tribune file photo. Photo by News Tribune / News Tribune.

In October 2018, officials with the Cole County Public Defender Office asked the Cole County Commission if there is any way to increase their office space.

Nearly three years later, they are asking again.

Currently housed on the second floor of the Carnegie Building on Adams Street in Jefferson City, the office serves clients who cannot afford legal services and are appointed to do so by courts in Cole, Miller and Moniteau counties.

State statute requires the counties that house public defenders offices to pay the costs of maintaining those offices. It also requires, if the office serves more than one county, that those other counties share the operating costs based on each county's population size.

According to figures from the Cole County Finance Office, Miller County paid $5,536.37 and Moniteau County paid $3,517.50 for operation of the Cole County Public Defenders Office in 2020. Cole County funded the remaining $16,829.13 bringing the total maintenance cost to $25,883.

Justin Carver, who is head of the office, told commissioners Tuesday at their regular commission meeting: "We love the location we have right now. It's easy for our lawyers and staff to walk to the courthouse, and clients can also get to us easily.

"The problem is we need more room to adequately do some of the work we have to do," he said.

Carver said they have converted a conference room into office space and he has been working in the hallway, leaving little to no room for some conversations between clients and fellow staff that should happen in a more private setting.

"If we have interviews for cases, we often talk about matters that shouldn't be heard in the open. But due to the lack of space, those conversations can sometimes be heard," he said.

Currently Carver and eight other lawyers work in the office. State Public Defender Mary Fox, who was also at Tuesday's meeting, said the General Assembly is considering legislation that would earmark $1 million to hire 15 new public defenders to eliminate some waiting lists for public defender services.

If the legislation passes, Fox said, there could be two more lawyers working out of the Cole County Public Defenders Office by September.

These 15 new lawyers would be going to offices in counties that were sued over defendant waiting lists so those lists can get cleared. Carver said as of Tuesday, there were approximately 350 on the list for his office.

In February, Special Judge William Hickle ruled in Cole County Circuit Court that making defendants wait for representation is a violation of their civil rights. Hickle said he would order judges in circuits with waiting lists to order private attorneys to represent defendants on the list and bill the public defender system.

Cole County judges have already been doing this, and Carver said they also have a list of private lawyers who have agreed to do work at a reduced rate, but they can't do enough to make a big reduction in the list.

Carver said he came to the commission now to let if know what could be coming in the near future. Commissioners said current options are few if any.

The basement of the Carnegie Building currently is being used for storage and would not be ideal for office space.

Space on the top floor of the courthouse has also been discussed, but it has no access to an elevator, and the commission took storage and offices off that floor years ago for fear the weight could cause it to collapse.

As for the old jail and sheriff's house on the rear of the courthouse, estimated rehabilitation costs to convert the space to offices and a potential new courtroom were deemed too expensive in 2014.

Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman told Carver and Fox: "Bear with us. (Last year) We had to make a small courtroom for a fifth judge (occupied by Judge Dan Green) on the top floor of the courthouse (after the state allowed the county to add a judge.)

"It's really not adequate for that. We're looking at all kinds of space issues, and you (Carver's office) come into that discussion when we talk about space," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight, but sometime soon I think we will make a decision on how we want to expand, because we have to."

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