By Eric Harrold
HOT SPRINGS – Changes in both the leadership of the State’s Attorney’s Office and in how court-appointed attorney fees are collected have brought about a notable increase to a couple of figures related to the criminal justice system in Fall River County.
In January of 2021, former State’s Attorney Lance Russell replaced Brian Arendt. What resulted over the next 12 months was a greater than 100 percent increase in SD State Penitentiary sentences from the previous year, and a significant increase in the number of criminals removed from the community due to prosecutorial action. Records obtained from the Fall River County Clerk of Courts Office and Fall River County State’s Attorney’s Office indicate 29 criminals were sentenced by Circuit Court to the penitentiary in 2021, as compared to 14 penitentiary sentences handed out in 2020.
“At a time when crime is rising dramatically across the United States, the public needs to know that law enforcement in Fall River County is working hard to protect our communities,” said Lance Russell, Fall River and Oglala Lakota County State’s Attorney. “Law enforcement’s efforts show real results and are making positive strides.”
Russell added that unfortunately, monetary damages and increased costs go hand-in-hand with criminal behavior. However, victims, as well as the court system, saw an increase in monies recovered during the same 2020 to 2021 period. The increase is a result of a new process implemented at the county level just last year for how collections are pursued.
According to information provided by the State’s Attorney’s Office, in 2020, the Clerk of Courts collected $20,588.88 and only a quarter of that during the first half of 2021 ($5,695.77). In July 2021, the Fall River County Auditor’s office took over collection of court-appointed attorney fees and brought in another $270,645 during the second half of 2021, netting over $276,000 for the entire year. These figures like those included in an article appearing in the March 29 edition of the Fall River County Herald Star titled “Low percentage of the state’s court debt is being collected” suggest that the South Dakota Unified Judicial System and the debt collection company acting as the Obligation Recovery System is largely ineffective in collecting outstanding court-related debts.
The well over ten-fold increase in collections, which include fines, costs, and court-appointed attorney fees, are monies that are distributed to victims, the court system, and the three School Districts of Fall River County.
County Auditor Sue Ganje pointed out that although her office has been quite successful in bringing in outstanding court-appointed attorney fees, a collection agency is still utilized for any remaining debt the Auditor’s office is unsuccessful in collecting. “Once the commission was approached and approved using a collection agency for delinquent court appointed liens, our office diligently worked on sending lien notices, accepting payments in full or initiated re-payment plans and then accepted partial payments,” said Ganje. “A lien is placed upon the person when they are approved by the court for the Court appointed attorney. The remaining outstanding liens will be turned over to collections.”
Russell was quick to dole out credit to the Fall River Auditor’s Office for its role in debt collection. “The employees in the Auditor’s Office worked very hard in collecting these delinquent court-appointed attorneys fees that were assessed against people convicted of crimes in Fall River County,” said Russell. “The taxpayers have benefitted greatly by the over $250,000 increase in collections by the staff in the Auditor’s Office,” he said.