Chief justice: Prioritize public defense, problem solving courts and help for young adults

Chief justice: Prioritize public defense, problem solving courts and help for young adults

South Dakota should embrace the role of public defenders, work to guide young adults out of trouble’s way, try harder to protect judges from danger and support problem-solving alternative courts, South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Jensen told lawmakers on Wednesday at the Capitol in Pierre.

Jensen also touched on potential changes to bar admission for law school graduates, trumpeting the work of a committee that recently recommended a pathway to licensure through public service or rural practice.

State-level public defense

The Unified Judicial System will ask lawmakers for additional money in two areas, Jensen said. The first request would fund a statewide public defense office, which will assign attorneys to handle appeals of local cases and abuse and neglect cases. The $1.4 million budget boost would pay for one lead public defender, four staff attorneys and two support staffers.

That request was an outgrowth of the work from a 13-member task force that met several times last year to discuss issues of indigent defense. When the group first convened, South Dakota was one of two states to saddle counties with the entire financial burden of providing legal representation to those who can’t afford to pay lawyers, Jensen said.

Now, South Dakota is the last state in that category.

“This past fall, the other state, Pennsylvania, authorized state funding and oversight for indigent defense for the first time,” Jensen said.

The constitutionally protected right to an attorney has become a budget buster for many counties, particularly smaller ones that face high-profile felony trials involving the payment of expert defense witnesses. It’s also becoming quite difficult to find lawyers to take on court appointments in rural areas, Jensen said, as the majority of lawyers live in urban areas.

“There are six counties in South Dakota that have no attorneys and 23 counties that have three or fewer lawyers,” Jensen said. “The lack of structure, oversight, and inefficiencies in our current indigent defense system has created legal deserts across the state.”

Jensen said he hopes the state public defense office will eventually come to serve a broader role in the justice system, offering guidance to counties and court-appointed lawyers and eventually offering legal help in cases before they reach the appeals stage.

You can read the full article at South Dakota Searchlight.