Boone County's public defender crisis continues

Posted on 5 October 2017 at 3:10pm

COLUMBIA - In September, Boone County judge Kevin Crane issued a ruling that due to a backup in the public defenders office, cases would be randomly assigned to private attorneys in the area who would have to work them for free. 

Since that time, a number of private attorneys in the Boone County area have spoken out against this ruling. Some attorneys, however, are stepping forward willingly to take on the cases. 

Josh Oxenhandler is one of the attorneys who has taken a case. He says that while this isn't the most ideal situation for attorneys in the area, it's part of the job.

"Part of the role of being an attorney is helping people. We have to look at populations that need our help. It's our duty as attorneys is to protect those people," said Oxenhandler, a Columbia native.

Oxenhandler runs his firm alongside his father, Gary Oxendhandler. Gary, a former Boone County judge, issued a similar ruling to judge Kevin Crane during his tenure.

While some private attorneys are upset about working for free, others are wondering if a ruling like this is even legal. 

Dave Roland, the Director of Litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, says this practice might be a violation of the 13th amendment. 

"When you've got a government official telling you that you must provide this labor even though you're not going to get paid for it, that's kind of the definition of involuntary servitude," he said. 

Both Roland and Oxenhandler say that there needs to be legislative action taken to prevent this situation happening again, but Oxenhandler says that the problem at hand still needs to be dealt with. 

"I think theres likely a legislative fix to this and a budgetary fix to this, but that doesn't help someone right now sitting in jail. That person needs our help," he said. 

Roland said that this choice might not be a decision that every private attorney can afford.

"There are a lot of attorneys who are struggling to get by. This could be the difference of whether or not they could pay their bills that month or not," he said. 

At this time, there is no timetable set in place for when private attorneys will stop being assigned these cases.