An increasing number of defendants in Central South Dakota are looking to public defenders and court-appointed attorneys in recent years, and could be impacting county budgets.
South Dakota Unified Judicial Services Public Information Officer Jill Gusso provided the Capital Journal with misdemeanor 1 and felony case numbers for Lyman, Stanley and Sully counties for fiscal year 2017 through fiscal year 2021. The data showed a pattern.
Sully County saw its number of misdemeanor 1 and felony dispositions fall from 30 in fiscal year 2017 and 2018 to 18 in fiscal year 2021, though its rate of appointment — the rate at which defendants used a public defender or court-appointed lawyer — more than doubled over that time period to more than 55 percent in fiscal year 2021.
Lyman County saw a nearly 18 percent increase in misdemeanor 1 and felony dispositions from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021, and its rate of appointment rose from about 57 percent in fiscal year 2017 to over 72 percent in fiscal year 2021.
And Stanley County has seen increases in misdemeanor 1 and felony dispositions each of the past three fiscal years to 150 in fiscal year 2021. Its rate of appointment in fiscal year 2021 was 62 percent, up from a little over 34 percent in fiscal 2018, a year which saw 107 misdemeanor 1 and felony dispositions in the county.
Stanley County Auditor Philena Burtch provided the Capital Journal with court-appointed attorney budget data dating back to 2018. The data shows a steady increase in the amount the county has paid for court-appointed attorneys for adult defendants, from $56,583.57 in 2018 to $75,341.82 in 2020.
In 2021, the county already used up its $70,000 budget for court-appointed attorneys for adult defendants and ended up adding an additional $25,000 to the budget during the Stanley County Commission meeting on Sept. 7.
“Hopefully we won’t use it all by the end of the year, but if we do, it’ll be $95,000,” Burtch said. “And for our little county, that’s a lot.”
Hughes County is finding itself in a similar position. The Capital Journal previously reported that county projects it will pay $360,933.92 in court-appointed attorney fees by the end of the year, well over the budgeted $230,000. The county’s rate of class 1 misdemeanor and felony cases with a public defender or court-appointed attorney also rose from 59.84 percent in fiscal year 2017 to 75.58 percent in fiscal year 2021.
Like Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie, Burtch said she isn’t sure why cases are on the up and up.
“There’s a lot of different things that they’re getting in trouble for,” Burtch said. “I don’t know the reasoning, I really don’t.”
Lyman County Auditor Deb Halverson told the Capital Journal that her county has not overshot its budget this year, but “about six years ago” saw a significant increase in court-appointed attorney and jail fees.
“We have had times in the past where it has been very up and down,” Halverson said. “Currently it hasn’t been as bad. The increase that we’re seeing now is actually still below what we were seeing a few years ago. I mean, of course, it’s always affecting the bottom line, we are definitely having to put more money towards that and the rate of return on court-appointed attorney fees is very low compared to the amount going out. So it’s definitely something that we’ve tried to address in the past and know that it’s not really something that county has a ton of control over.”
Halverson added that she hopes to see action taken at the state level.
“It’s an interesting stigma because of course we don’t want felons on the street,” Halverson said. “We would like to see the state look at different ways of how they handle the cases and to take the county’s considerations more into account when trying cases, but it’s kind of a large leap and until there’s something figured out at the state level, the counties are just going to keep doing what we can to move forward.”