PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Indigent Legal Services Task Force has wrapped up the bulk of its work.

The Legislature established the 13-member panel earlier this year at the request of South Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Jensen.

The group on Tuesday reviewed the draft report assembled by staff for the South Dakota court system. 

State courts administrator Greg Sattizahn said he would put the report into final form. The panel will meet one more time to sign off on it.

The task force held an organizational meeting March 31 and met four more times. There also was a series of listening sessions in nine communities throughout the state, with a tenth held virtually.

Neil Fulton, dean of Knudson School of Law at the University of South Dakota, co-chairs the group. He suggested on Tuesday the members add patience to their list of goals.

“This is the start of a conversation for us over a period of time,” said, a former head of the federal public defender’s office for South Dakota and North Dakota.

Circuit Judge Michael Day of Belle Fourche, the other co-chair, said the panel had done “a remarkable job” given the limited time and the large amount of information that was gathered. 

“It’s something we’ve got a long tradition for,” Sattizahn said. South Dakota is one of two states that is entirely county-based and one of six that don’t have a state oversight mechanism. “Those really stood out for me,” he said. “It’s important we understand our landscape.” 

Challenges range from lawyers capable of providing defense to paying for their services. 

One of the task force members, Republican Rep. Will Mortenson, said he recently provided insights about the task force to a group of Republicans who are new legislators. Based on their comments, Mortenson, an attorney, suggested getting additional background on the $21 million spent by counties on indigent legal defense, such as listing the most expensive cases, breaking down how much was spent by felony and misdemeanor cases, and possibly recommending a cap on the maximum exposure. He said that providing the information might help “for years to come.” 

Another task force member, Hughes County Commission member Randy Brown, said counties want a $10,000 cap per case and a cap on a county’s total cost in a year.  

Task force member Art Hopkins, an Oglala Lakota County Commission member, said some of the tribal governments have lawyers who could contribute. He said tribal governments also might contribute financially. ”I’m pretty sure something could come out of it,” he said. 

Republican Senator Jim Mehlhaff suggested the report show the costs incurred by visitors, whether from another county or from another state.

The report notes that as early as 1868 — 21 years before South Dakota gained statehood — the territory’s laws said that a defendant appearing for arraignment without counsel be informed of their right to counsel and directed that the court assign counsel for the defendant.

“It’s something we’ve got a long tradition for,” Sattizahn said.

The task force found that South Dakota is one of two states where indigent defense is entirely county-funded and one of six that don’t have a state oversight mechanism. “Those really stood out for me,” Sattizahn said. “It’s important we understand our landscape.” 

Challenges that counties face range from finding lawyers capable of providing defense services for indigent clients to paying for those services. 

The report’s recommendations include:

— Establishing a state commission of nine to 13 members. 

— Establishing a state office with an estimated starting budget of $1.4 million. 

— Hiring a chief public defender to oversee the state office, who would be on a level similar to the attorney general regarding criminal work.

— Requiring legislative oversight of the commission and state office, with formal reporting mechanisms 

— Finding alternate funding sources.

— Give the commission and state office responsibility to set statewide policies and rates for counsel. 

— Give the Unified Judicial System authority to contract with the Sixth Amendment Center for “a thorough review” of representative counties to gather more information, including what drives costs. 

For funding, the panel plans to offer ideas — “We have to make sure the dollars are there,” Sattizahn said — but doesn’t intend to make definite recommendations.

Eric Whitcher from the Pennington County Public Defender’s Office suggested stratification of lawyer compensation to reflect the need for experienced representation in serious cases.

Traci Smith from the Minnehaha County Public Defender’s Officer suggested that indigent juvenile defendants shouldn’t be responsible for repaying attorney fees even if they’re charged with crimes in adult court. She also suggested that state government pay attorney fees for indigent defendants who weren’t found guilty.

Fulton said the report would provide a long list of possible choices for the Legislature to consider on funding.