Chief justice updates Capitol

AP file photo: South Dakota Supreme Court Chief David Gilbertson

Gilbertson highlights rural lawyers, drug courts, mental health issues

PIERRE – When David Gilbertson delivered his State of the Judiciary address Wednesday, he updated lawmakers on programs that got their start under his direction as chief justice. 

Gilbertson called South Dakota’s Rural Attorney Program the “gold standard,” noting that states as large and populous as California and New York are having trouble attracting attorneys to rural areas. 

The South Dakota program originally matched attorneys with rural counties that didn’t have a lawyer. Of the 48 counties that are eligible for the program, Gilbertson said that 24 of them have lawyers under contract. 

Last year the program was expanded to municipalities with populations of 3,500 or less. Elk Point will be the first to get an attorney through the program. 

“Not one attorney has left the program for lack of legal work,” Gilbertson said. “The need is there, and the need is being met.”

Drug and alcohol courts have been helping addicts since a pilot program started the courts in 2008.

Gilbertson said that at the time he saw that “the need was substantial and growing.” The need continues to grow as 490 clients were served last year with more than 100 graduating from the program.

The cost to put a client through the drug court program is $8,065 per year, Gilbertson said, one third of what it takes to incarcerate a prisoner. Another cost saving is the 166 children of clients who did not have to become wards of the state while their parents were in prison. That saved the state an annual cost of $10,000 per child. 

Because circuit courts are being strained by a heavy load of drug cases, Gilbertson said he is requesting that the Legislature fund two additional circuit court judges to work in Minnehaha and Pennington counties.

“The rubber band is only going to stretch so far,” said Gilbertson, who joined the high court in 1995 and has served as its chief justice since 2001.

The time that prisoners are held in jail prior to getting a mental health evaluation has been cut thanks to legislation passed in 2017, Gilbertson said. Among other things, the law broadened the definition of who can conduct a competency hearing.

Gilbertson also noted a pilot project that asked four county sheriffs to collect mental health data on the prisoners in their jails. Seven sheriffs volunteered for the program, and their data shows that between 14 percent and 27 percent of their prisoners show indicators of mental illness.

The chief justice told the joint session of the Legislature about the success of a new mental health court in Pennington County and told legislators that a similar court is needed in Minnehaha County.


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