Look ahead to task force to study cost for counties for public defenders

WATERTOWN, S.D.(KXLG)- The U.S. Constitution guarantees all U.S. citizens the right to an attorney when charged with a crime, even if they can’t afford one. Only 11 states, including South Dakota, use local rather than state dollars to pay for the vast majority of those public defense attorneys.

In fact, just one state relies more heavily on counties to pay the cost than South Dakota, and that state – Pennsylvania – is considering a five-year, $50 million investment in public defense. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s 66 counties have seen their public defense costs for criminal cases more than double in the last decade. In addition, even finding attorneys is a challenge for many smaller counties.

The South Dakota Legislature passed a bill last session, creating a task force to study the problem and develop a legislative solution. The South Dakota Unified Judicial System has formed an Indigent Defense Task Force, which recently held its first meeting.

Codington County Commissioner Lee Gabel said rising caseloads put pressure on county finances.

And many counties in the state are also feeling financial pressures in other areas. South Dakota Speaker of the House Hugh Bartels of Watertown said a different group is also studying county finances this summer. But he expects the Indigent Defense Task Force to devise a workable solution.

Gabel is also anxious to hear the task force’s recommendations.