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South Dakota task force recommends statewide indigent legal services office

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(The Center Square) – A South Dakota committee recommended Monday that the state take over the costs for providing indigent legal services.

The Indigent Legal Services Task Force, consisting of attorneys, judges, county officials and state lawmakers, said in a report it would cost about $1.4 million to staff and operate in the office.

The new office would relieve $1.5 million to $2 million from county indigent legal defense costs annually, the report said.

The task force was created through House Bill 1064 during the 2023 legislative session to identify how indigent parties receive legal services in South Dakota and recommend ways to improve those services.

During Monday’s meeting, task force members examined three final recommendations, including creating a statewide indigent defense commission and state public defender office.

The estimated costs for operating the office would include $797,831 for salaries and benefits and $615,000 to cover operating expenses, according to the report.

A nine-member commission would oversee and enhance the indigent defense model in South Dakota.

“Challenges in the current system have been exacerbated and allowed to linger because of the lack of statewide oversight and review in this area. The commission and statewide public defender office should fill that role,” the report said.

The office for indigent legal services would include training and support for court-appointed counsel and potentially include felony trial-level appointments.

The chief public defender would serve as the representative for the office and perform reduced casework to make time for the new administrative responsibilities, the report said.

Also recommended is a statewide study on the state’s indigent legal services. Oversight is needed to audit attorney billings and services to ensure fair representation and to review the current process of requiring individuals to reimburse the cost of indigent legal defense.

“An effective indigent defense delivery system is paramount to ensure the rights of South Dakota citizens are protected and to ensure an efficient operation of the judicial system,” the committee said in its report. “There is no way around the fact that indigent defense demand and costs have not kept pace with the resources counties currently provide for indigent defense services.”

The next step is drafting legislation for the 2024 legislative session, the committee said.

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