Rising caseloads may require another judge for Minnehaha and Lincoln counties

Presiding Judge Robin Houwman says one magistrate will start this summer but another circuit court judge is needed.

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Second Circuit Court Presiding Judge Robin Houwman told the Minnehaha County Commission on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, that the courthouse will need to be remodeled to accommodate demand.
Jonathan Ellis / The Dakota Scout

SIOUX FALLS — Increasing workloads in Minnehaha and Lincoln counties mean the court system needs an additional judge, according to the presiding judge for the area.

Second Circuit Court Presiding Judge Robin Houwman told the Minnehaha County Commission this week that while some criminal cases are trending down, overall the numbers are going up. Divorces, for instance, are up 25% and juvenile cases increased 12% in the fiscal year 2022.

The growing population in the metro is straining the courts which will require additional resources. The state legislature approved an additional magistrate judge beginning July 1 and Houwman anticipates requesting funding for another circuit court judge next year.

Houwman and Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dan Haggar presented annual briefings to the county commissioners on Tuesday, April 25, that detailed some of the statistics for the past year.

Haggar said cases prosecuted by his office last year were down mostly because of those more minor misdemeanor crimes trending downward. However, felonies account for 34% of all cases handled by his office and are up 3% from the year before and 9% over the past five years.


What were most concerning were child abuse and neglect cases, up 43% to 201. Aggravated assault cases, often tied to domestic partner situations, increased 20% from 873 to 1,047 in the past year. He said those cases in recent years had been in the 800s.

Haggar said the abuse and neglect cases have resulted in the need for more interventions and are often time consuming as they try to connect victims to the help they need.

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Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar talks about 2022 crime trends at a March 7, 2023, press conference at the Public Safety Center in Sioux Falls.
John Hult / South Dakota Searchlight

Many of the assault cases involve domestic abuse between intimate partners and his office is seeking a three-year violence against women grant to try to help with the situations by hiring another attorney and a part-time investigator. Another detective in the sheriff’s office could also be hired through the grant.

County Commissioner Gerald Beninga said he knows the cases law enforcement “hate going into are domestic violence because they have no idea what’s going to happen when they go to the front door.”

“I wouldn’t use the word wild, but I can’t come up with a different description,” Beninga said.

Haggar agreed.

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“What makes these cases so difficult is the level of emotion,” he said. “For the victims it could be the worst moment of their lives.”

Haggar told Sioux Falls Live after the meeting that the overall case load dropped from 10,900 in 2021 to 10,331 last year. That was largely due to the drop in misdemeanors such as driving while intoxicated, marijuana possession, trespassing and even felony grand theft cases.


However, he said with other felonies up over the past years, the workload is still high.

“The drop in cases is a good thing, but I wish I could come up here next year and say assaults were dropping but that’s not the way it’s trending,” Haggar said.

He thanked the commissioners for allowing his department to be fully staffed since November and also for the remodeling of their offices where attorneys are no longer in such crowded conditions leading to improving collaboration between the staff.

“I’m optimistic about the next year and a lot of that optimism is because of the individuals we have working for us,” he said.

Violent crime rate was flat last year and lower than the 2020 spike. The police chief says he’s “pleased,” but not happy with the overall state of public safety in the city.

Houwman said the Second Curcuit handles 34% of the state's cases but receives only 25% of the overall resources provided for the seven total circuits. Minnehaha and Lincoln counties had 62,388 cases filed in fiscal year 2022 ending last June. By comparison, the circuit for south-central South Dakota had 11,766 cases.

The 12 circuit court judges and four magistrate court judges in the Second Circuit had 85,000 hearings in the past year in 18 courtrooms.

Houwman is hoping the addition of the new magistrate judge — bringing the total to 17 judges — will help the situation although a new courtroom is needed.

There are also 108 other court employees, she said.


Other concerns, she said, are security issues and digitizing older court records.

"What we believe to be true can overshadow the actual statistics."

As for security issues, she said they have completed key card access updates and are nearing completion on duress alarm improvements. Also, they are discussing security glass work in court offices.

Circuit Court Administrator Karl Thoennes said after a new private company took over record storage for the county that the price per month has more than doubled from about $2,000 a month to $4,600.

He said they need to discuss digitizing old records or securing new storage. The records are required to be kept by law with some dating back as far as statehood.

He said there are 10,000 cubic feet of paper records, with 8,000 of those in the commercial storage facilities.

County Commissioner Dean Karsky said he wanted to point out how the courts are financed.

Houwman said that the state pays for judges and staff, but that the county is responsible for buildings and security.

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