Hughes County is a month away from having to set its budget for 2022, and a decent proportion of that remaining time will likely go towards debating what to do about rising court-appointed attorney costs as the number of felony and class 1 misdemeanor cases moving through the county courthouse increases.
According to data provided by County Auditor Jane Naylor, Hughes County spent $180,466.96 on court-appointed attorneys through the first two quarters of 2021. The county projects it’s on track to pay $360,933.92 in that category by the end of the year, well over the budgeted $230,000.
Naylor said that expense hasn’t yet affected the county’s finances, but it likely will.
“It’s going to,” Naylor said. “We’re hanging in there right now, but it’s going to cause us to use our contingency budget. We’re going to be using reserves.”
The increased expense comes at a time when Hughes County is already losing key revenue due to understaffing at its regional jail, which contracts with 14 counties.
Hughes County has until Sept. 30 to set its 2022 budget. Naylor said the county is still debating an increase of the budget for court-appointed attorneys for next year and is going over different options.
Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie said those options include a contract for misdemeanor defense attorneys, which the county does not currently have.
“There’ve been discussions of, ‘Well, how do we get lab results back faster, so that we don’t have a DUI case that’s pending two to three to four or five, six months because we’re waiting on lab results, depending on what we’re waiting on,’” LaMie told the Capital Journal. “So those types of things to kind of streamline cases are some of the discussions that we’ve had trying to figure this out.”
LaMie said the caseload flowing through her office is noticeably larger since she started with the Hughes County State’s Attorney’s Office as chief deputy state’s attorney in 2018. And according to statistics provided to the Capital Journal by the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, she’s right.
There were 869 class 1 misdemeanor and felony cases in Hughes County in fiscal 2017, according to UJS. That number fell to 846 in fiscal 2018 before rising to 901 in fiscal 2019, then falling to 833 in fiscal 2020.
In fiscal 2021, that figure increased to 1,032.
“Since taking over this position fairly recently, it’s hard to say,” LaMie said when asked if she could identify a particular reason for the increase. “You know, a lot of people say COVID, which that probably plays a part in it, and then just because of increased cases there are certain elements that make a case take longer, whether it be getting lab results back or it might be letting people out that, because of COVID, to try to cut that down, and then they pick up new files and then that adds court-appointed attorney’s fees because they take more time because you got to get up to speed on a second file. I can’t really pinpoint one thing or the other. There’s so many moving parts in this system that to try and pinpoint one thing is very difficult. It’s going to be a process of trial and error to try and figure out how we handle that increased case number.”
South Dakota UJS Public Information Officer Jill Gusso said Hughes County’s case numbers could not be broken down further into violent and non-violent without citing which statutes constituted violent and non-violent crimes. But LaMie said it certainly feels as though the number of violent cases coming through her office is on the rise.
“Assault cases, there’s so many moving parts, there’s victims you have to consider, there’s a lot of emotions that are involved in those cases and it seems like there’s a lot more of those that I’ve seen in years past,” LaMie said. “And so that could be another factor, like I said, it’s just so hard to know. But there’s definitely been an increased caseload and it’s not like one I’ve seen before.”
In addition to the rise in the number of cases, more defendants are turning to public defenders and court-appointed attorneys, according to UJS data. Hughes County’s rate of class 1 misdemeanor and felony cases with a public defender or court-appointed attorney rose from 59.84% in fiscal 2017 to 75.58% in fiscal 2021.
“Generally the cases that I have, it’s more likely that someone’s going to have a court-appointed attorney, in my experience, than it is a retained attorney,” LaMie said. “That’s not surprising to me, but I don’t know why that would (cause) an increase. Again, going back, possibly COVID if it’s within the last year, but if it’s been a continual increase, I couldn’t tell you.”
Though the percentage of cases involving public defenders and court-appointed attorneys has increased gradually each fiscal year from 2017 to 2021, it saw a dramatic increase of nearly eight percentage points from fiscal 2020 to fiscal 2021.