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Public Defender with defendant in Courtroom
Lawmakers, lobbyists and education officials gather together during a conference committee meeting on teacher pay legislation during the 2024 legislative session in Pierre. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

South Dakota Public Defense Costs Shift To State

PIERRE, S.D. – South Dakota is creating an Office of Indigent Legal Services after House Bill 1057 passed the Legislature with nearly unanimous support this month.

U-S Constitutional rights give all people accused of a crime the right to a lawyer.

South Dakota is one of only two states where counties, not the state, have been responsible for providing public defenders for those who can’t afford to pay. Neil Fulton, who co-chairs the Indigent Legal Services Task Force, says that cost adds up for counties. He says there are added challenges for people in rural counties seeking attorneys.

“The biggest challenge is just availability and the geographic reach from where the lawyer is to where the client is.”

Fulton predicts the bill will improve the quality of public defense. He hopes to see the new state office taking cases by the end of this year, following the creation of a Commission on Indigent Legal Services and hiring and training attorneys.

It’s still undecided how the program will be funded long-term.

Indigent defendants are expected to pay back the costs of their legal services. But Samantha Chapman of the ACLU of South Dakota thinks that should change, too.

“We hope that there will be future policy reform bills changing the way that the state is recouping the costs from those indigent defendants, many of which will never be able to pay off their debt.”

The changes to the system are projected to cost the state one-point-four million dollars annually – and save counties over one-point-five million.

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