Minnehaha County attorneys struggle with homicide caseload

February 28, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A public defender’s office in southeastern South Dakota said it doesn’t have enough attorneys to handle the rising number of homicide cases in the county.

The Minnehaha County Public Defender’s Office filed a motion last week to be dismissed from the latest Sioux Falls homicide case it’s been tasked with, citing the lack of manpower to take on the case “diligently and ethically.”

The county’s public defenders are currently representing nine individuals charged with homicide, the Argus Leader reported . There aren’t enough qualified attorneys to manage double-digit homicide defenses.

Public Defender Traci Smith said there’s “an imbalance in the system” resulting from an increased focus on drug arrests.

“We represent the poorest of the poor, who have needs far beyond just their criminal case,” said Smith. “Now we have more work than we can handle. Thus, in dealing with one crisis we have created another.”

Smith said about 20 years ago, attorneys may have handled two homicide cases a year. The office had 10 pending homicide cases last year.

Of the county public defender office’s 24 positions, only four attorneys are qualified to manage a homicide case, in which trial preparation often takes hundreds of hours.

Last year, more than 8,300 new cases were opened at the office, which is nearly a 60 percent increase over a five-year period. If distributed evenly, each attorney would handle about 380 cases.

The American Bar Association recommends a full-time attorney stick to 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases.

“We either need more bodies or limit the number of cases we can take,” said Mike Miller, chief deputy public defender.

Smith said she’d like to see workload standards more strictly followed.

“If you have too many airplanes in the sky, that’s dangerous,” she said. “There are standards that have to be followed.”


Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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