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UJS wants study for court-appointed lawyers

Brent Duerre

Indigent people facing prosecution have a right to be represented by an attorney. In South Dakota, counties bear most of the cost for that right. But the number of defendants and the cost of attorneys has been rising rapidly, and some counties are running out of money.

The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday, Jan. 18, to approve a study to find solutions.

Greg Satterzahn, state court administrator for the Unified Judicial System, told the committee that judges have to ensure that court-appointed attorneys are available and competent and have adequate resources and time to represent defendants. But the court’s responsibility doesn’t end there.

“The other factor is, it’s required,” he said. “There’s not an option where we can say, ‘You don’t have to worry about providing a lawyer because you can’t find one in your county,’ or ‘They’re going to have to travel too far. It’s going to be too expensive.’”

Satterzahn said that over the years, more and more people are arrested and the cost of representation goes up.

In the 2021-22 fiscal year, he said, counties spent more than $20 million on criminal representation. In 2010, the cost was half that amount.

“I would suspect in less than a decade it will double again when you look at the number of appointments that are required, the cost associated with the appointments,” he said.

Satterzahn said the state pays court-appointed attorneys $50 an hour less than the federal system does and reimburses travel at a dollar a mile.

“The lawyers have essentially told several of our judges, ‘I’m not taking those cases,’” he said.

Satterzahn said the money coming from the state to counties covers only about 3 percent of costs.

Staci Ackerman is executive director of the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association. She testified in support of the bill, hoping the study will take the burden off counties.

“If you’ve been here a while, you’ve probably heard us speak about the need at the county level for public safety cost funding,” Ackerman said. “And if we’re not able to find new revenue streams, are there ways we can look at doing things differently?”

The House Judiciary voted unanimously to approve the bill and put it on a fast-track to the Senate side.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.