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Public defense reform reaches governor's desk

Capitol Lake in Pierre
Todd Thompson
Capitol Lake in Pierre

Public defense reform has made it out of the statehouse with the passage of HB 1057.

This comes after months of study, discussion, and negotiation among lawmakers, lawyers and judges across South Dakota.

The bill establishes a statewide indigent defense commission focused on the issue from a statewide level.

“Indigent” means someone who cannot afford to pay for their own legal service. Currently, public defense services are handled on a county-by-county basis.

Canton Republican Sen. Jim Bolin worked closely on the issue. He said it’s a success to get this bill on the governors’ desk.

“All of this came together in House Bill 1057 which established this commission and added an additional one-time spending of $3 million to begin to help counties to pay for the defense of individuals who can’t afford their own attorney,” Bolin said.

Bolin said public defense in the state was no small undertaking.

“We’re very pleased by it, it wasn’t exactly what we wanted but we got most of what we wanted," Bolin said. "Very pleased by the results of the effort that came not from myself alone or from any person alone, but by the work of the summer study project and a lot of work from different senators and representatives.”

One proposal backed by Bolin, the reallocation of a percentage of wholesale alcohol sales taxes to further fund the commission, died in committee.

He said the funding problem isn’t solved yet.

“It will begin to help counties pay for this extra expense that has grown dramatically," Bolin said. "This has to be the first step, and I know the chief justice believes this as well, we have to continue this as we move forward in years to come. It’s not going to solve every problem, but it’s a major first step.”

South Dakota only has three dedicated county public defender offices, and the commission will remove much of the pressure and cost burden from local to the state taxpayers.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture