PIERRE, S.D. – The Chief Justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court wants the court system to address rehabilitating young adult offenders and how new attorneys are licensed in the state.
Chief Justice Steven R. Jensen spoke this afternoon (Wednesday) before a joint session of the legislature for the annual address.
Jensen says most of the criminal defendants the courts see are between 18 and 25. He says drugs, mental health issues, and lack of education can lead young people to crime. Many are non-violent. However, the Chief Justice says that without the proper help, non-violent offenders can also turn into violent offenders.
He also expressed concerns about counties being able to pay for appointed counsel for indigent defendants in criminal, abuse and neglect, and similar cases. Jensen said that counties spent $21 million last year for indigent defense but, were only able to recoup 2-3% of that amount from a fund funded by criminal fines. According to Jensen, hourly rates for appointed counsel are low, making it challenging to find counsel for indigent defendants.
Jensen also says he wants the Supreme Court to study and address how new lawyers are admitted in South Dakota. Last year, he said the legislature considered a bill that would have given University of South Dakota Law School graduates a “diploma” privilege to practice law. Jensen says it is the Court’s responsibility to ensure that the attorneys who practice law in the state meet rigorous character and competency criteria. That, he says, is to make sure the citizens receive proper representation.
The proposal last year to provide for “diploma privilege” was brought by Rep. Mary Fitzgerald (R-St. Onge). Fitzgerald’s daughter, a graduate of USD’s School of Law, has been unable to pass the Bar exam after numerous attempts. Fitzgerald and other proponents point to the lawyer shortage, and the rigors of South Dakota’s lone law school as a reason to allow students graduating from there to go straight into practicing. She has already filed draft legislation on the topic this year.
The Chief Justice also addressed increasing population growth in the Sioux Falls area leading Jensen to ask the legislature to fund another magistrate judge. Magistrate judges handle misdemeanor cases, initial appearances, bond hearings, and civil cases under $12,000. There are currently four magistrate judges in the Second Circuit, which includes Minnehaha and Lincoln Counties. Statewide, Jensen said there are 45 circuit judges and 17 magistrate judges. He says those 62 judges have an average of 3,000 pending cases each.