South Dakota inmates get tablets for legal research; state drops paralegal and part-time lawyer

Criminal Justice

Inmates in South Dakota no longer have a need for legal help from a paralegal or lawyer because they can do their own research on tablets, according to Department of Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk.

South Dakota is one of two states that had offered legal help to inmates researching the law or needing advice on court procedures, Kaemingk tells the Argus Leader. South Dakota had paid about $135,000 a year for an on-site paralegal and part-time lawyer, but their help isn’t needed, he said.

The other state, Rhode Island, contracts with law students to provide legal information for inmates, Courthouse News Service reports.

The South Dakota lawyer and paralegal advised inmates researching family law matters, civil rights lawsuits or federal habeas appeals that don’t provide a court-appointed lawyer. The state was also paying for hard-copy law books, bringing the total annual cost to about $276,000.

The tablets, issued to all inmates, will allow around-the-clock legal research and give them access to paid subscriptions to games, books and music on a closed network, the Argus Leader reported in an earlier story. The tablets are provided by Global Tel Link at no cost to the state.

The state’s cost for LexisNexis research will be $54,720 for the first year. The Department of Corrections is working on an hourly-rate contract for lawyers who update forms that inmates use to file legal documents, the story reports.

Clinical assistant law professor David Shapiro of Northwestern University’s Roderick MacArthur Justice Center was skeptical about the plan.

“What’s someone who can’t read or write … supposed to do with a tablet?” he said in an interview with Courthouse News Service.

The lawyer hired to help the inmates, Delmar “Sonny” Walter, tells the Argus Leader that the tablets have actually increased his workload because inmates are finding cases that bring more legal questions.

A consent decree in a 1999 inmate lawsuit said South Dakota must provide inmates with meaningful access to the courts. Kaemingk tells the Argus Leader that the consent decree didn’t require the state to provide a lawyer or paralegal in perpetuity.

But Walter tells Courthouse News Service he expects a new lawsuit over court access.

“A book isn’t going to make you a lawyer,” he said. “These people need legal assistance.”

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