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Published February 20, 2013, 11:47 AM

North Dakota Senate Bumps Funding for Legal Aid Agency

North Dakota's oil wealth has bumped the state's population to record levels, resulting in more crime and defendants who can't afford to hire an attorney, officials say.

By: James MacPherson, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota's oil wealth has bumped the state's population to record levels, resulting in more crime and defendants who can't afford to hire an attorney, officials say.

The state Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigent, created by the Legislature in 2005, assigns a defense attorney to a case when a suspect is declared eligible for indigent counsel. The agency's director, Robin Huseby, told The Associated Press that the number of crimes and defendants who can't afford attorneys has increased statewide, but especially in western North Dakota where the population has risen with increased oil production.

"We're basically doing triage up there like in an emergency room," Huseby said.

North Dakota's Senate on Tuesday voted to increase legal aid funding for the agency from $11.7 million to $14.5 million over the next two years.

Funding for the measure, which the Senate passed unanimously Tuesday with little discussion, was included in Gov. Jack Dalrymple's proposed two-year budget. The measure now goes to the House for review.

Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, said the money helps offset the costs of legal aid and would add one attorney and two administrative positions, bringing the total number of employees at the agency to 33.

The commission has attorneys based in Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot, Dickinson and Williston, and it hires private attorneys to help with the workload. Huseby said the state has up to 50 lawyers under contract.

Huseby said the commission last year handled 10,611 cases statewide, a 12 percent increase since 2009. Williams County, in the heart of western North Dakota's booming oil patch, the caseload had grown 43 percent since 2009, Huseby said.

Lawyers assigned to criminal suspects are being shifted from other parts of the state to western North Dakota due to the increased workload there, Huseby said. Not only are the number of cases up, the types of crimes statewide have worsened, she said.

"Last year was the first year since I came in 2005 that felonies exceeded misdemeanor assignments," Huseby said. "The statistics as to what sort of cases are increasing are troubling."

From 2009 to 2012, Class AA felonies that include crimes such as murder and continuous sexual assault increased statewide from 65 to 104, a 60 percent increase, Huseby said. Class C Felonies, which include burglary and many drug cases, jumped 32 percent over the three-year period, from 2,403 cases to 3,160, she said.

The North Dakota Senate earlier this month endorsed the addition of three new judgeships in the state to keep up with increased caseloads caused by record oil development.

North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle appealed to state lawmakers during his State of the Judiciary speech last month to add two judgeships in the epicenter of the oil boom, and one judgeship in Fargo. Budget analysts estimate the cost to establish the judgeships will be about $1.7 million.

North Dakota has 44 trial judges, five of whom are based in the oil boom towns of Williston and Dickinson. Five judges also are based in Minot, just east of most development in the oil patch.

The chief justice has said only stopgap measures had been done previously to address growing caseloads brought by increased oil development.

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