The Hughes County Commission voted Monday to supplement its budget for court-appointed attorneys by $150,000, an amount County Manager Kevin Hipple said is intended to last the rest of 2021.

Budget documents Hipple provided to the Capital Journal indicate that Hughes County spent $329,708.19 on court-appointed attorneys in the first nine months of 2021 and $47,964.21 in September alone.

Documents provided to the Capital Journal in August by then-Hughes County Auditor and Finance Officer Jane Naylor indicated that the county had spent $180,466.96 on court-appointed attorneys in the first two quarters of 2021 and was on track to spend a little over $360,000 in that category by the end of the year.

“It has not slowed at all,” Hipple said. “I don’t know that it’s picked up, but it’s certainly keeping pace.”

Hughes County State’s Attorney Jessica LaMie said there are likely multiple factors behind the rise in court-appointed attorney’s fees in 2021.

“There are so many factors that play into this,” LaMie said. “There’s COVID, there’s drug use, there’s so many factors that go into it. The cases that I’ve seen more recently, within the last year, have a big mental health component. There’s a lot of cases that mental health plays a significant factor in, and ultimately those cases, just by the nature of what goes into them, are more expensive. Evaluations, specific treatments, there are so many things that, by the nature of them, they are more expensive. And those kind of sometimes fall into the category of the unusually difficult, which are then off the felony contracts. So that’s just one example.”

Both Hipple and LaMie also cited the lack of a contract for misdemeanor cases, something Hughes County had in the past.

“We used to have a misdemeanor contract that kind of corralled some of those costs into a contract amount that we don’t have now,” Hipple said. “So those are all going into court-appointed attorneys and we have less control over the limits on that spending.”

Hughes County Commission Chair Randy Vance expressed the gravity of the situation in an exchange with LaMie at Monday’s commission meeting while LaMie was making the case for adding a third prosecutor to her office in addition to the currently open deputy state’s attorney position.

“It’s going to break the county, we’re not going to be able to afford anything,” Vance said of the county’s court-appointed attorney fees. “If we continue on the road we’re going with court-appointed attorneys and stuff, we’re going to be broke.”

Vance went on to say that tentative plans for a new county courthouse to replace the current one, built in the mid-1930s, are “out the window” at the moment.

“I really think right now we are being reactive to cases rather than proactive,” LaMie told the commission Monday. “And that’s just because my office does not have the time. Part of that is being down an attorney for a good portion of this year.”

Earlier in the meeting, the commission approved a $4,000-per-month contract with local law firm Bachand & Hruska, P.C. to prosecute some magistrate and misdemeanor court cases for the county, paid with the money LaMie’s office currently doesn’t have to pay for a deputy state’s attorney.

“It’s really just to fill the gap right now... in hiring a deputy,” LaMie said. She added that the South Dakota State Attorney General’s Office has been “really gracious” in their assistance, as well.

LaMie told the Capital Journal she is hopeful that the new contract will allow Hughes County to at least hold the line on court-appointed attorney’s fees. Her office, in which she is currently the only full-time attorney, is filing cases from as far back as April and May, sometimes even farther back on felony cases.

“The numbers have stayed consistent, I feel like, through the year,” LaMie said. “And so it’s really just helping us to not fall farther behind until I can get that full-time position filled.”

Michael Woodel | 605-224-7301 ext. 131

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