Minnehaha County public defender asking for more support staff
Traci Smith told the commissioners that rising caseloads from a growing city require more resources.
SIOUX FALLS — Minnehaha County’s Chief Public Defender Traci Smith told county commissioners on Tuesday, May 2, that she will be asking for more support staff in her upcoming budget request.
Smith said the public defender's office needs a social worker and an investigator to continue a “more holistic approach to better serve our clients and taxpayers."
“The biggest challenge we face is realizing how our community is transitioning to a metro community,” she said.
With population growth comes an increase in criminal cases, she said.
The number of violent cases handled by her office climbed 14.5% from 2021 to last year, mostly cases of aggravated assaults.
Also increasing were misdemeanors up 16% and juvenile cases increasing 53%.
Those numbers were similar with what the state’s attorney’s office reported to the county commissioners last month.
Smith explained that her office, established in 1982, helps low-income or indigent defendants who are facing jail time or other “loss of liberty” issues.
She said her clients can face other difficulties after being charged or convicted such as loss of housing, public benefits and student loan eligibility.
“It’s not just about jury trials,” she said.
Her office, besides continuing to move towards the holistic approach to cases, is doing more collaboration with other groups and even the court system to address issues.
For example, she said they have been working with the courts on identifying people who have been sitting in jail the longest and attempting to move their cases forward faster.
Smith also said her team is working with other agencies and groups to try to reduce jail stays and recidivism and also participating in problem-solving courts and with mental health organizations.
Because of increasing mental health related cases, she said more defendants are serving jail time.
Julie Hofer, who leads the county’s public advocate office which handles cases that the public defender can’t because of conflicts of interest or time, said their overall caseload was down slightly, but felony cases were up by 50 last year compared to 2021.
“The felony cases can sometimes require experts and are more work for an attorney,” she said.
Both Hofer and Smith pointed out their efforts to try to keep expenses down for taxpayers.
Hofer said her office closed 2,375 cases last year with a budget of $1.38 million for an average cost of $551 per case.
By contrast, when judges are forced to appoint a private attorney, which last year was about 960 cases, they were paid about $1.3 million for those cases with a cost per case of $1,380 for the county.
So by having the public defender and public advocate offices handle most of the cases, the cost to taxpayers can be cut down.
Smith added that the public advocate and public defender services for low-income defendants “aren’t free.”
“Most people don't realize defendants have to pay back fees for court appointed counsel,” she said
In her report to the county board, Smith also pointed out that a study in Minnesota looked at how many cases a public defender can handle in a year.
The Minnesota guidelines say the public defender in Minnehaha County would need 10 attorneys to cover the number of cases. But the office has just seven who handle about 350 cases each a year.
County Commissioner Joe Kippley wondered why the costs for private attorneys appointed by the court were so much higher.
Hofer said there were various factors but that their office works daily on providing defense for low-income residents whereas some private lawyers may not be as familiar with the processes and paperwork involved.
Also some attorneys have been appointed to handle high profile cases such as manslaughter which can substantially add to expenses.