New Pine Ridge attorney general working to rebuild a system in disarray

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. (KOTA TV) With no attorney general and just a skeleton staff of prosecutors for 10 months the Pine Ridge criminal justice system drifted. But now a new top cop is on the job and is working to bring some order to the operation.

Oglala Sioux Tribal Attorney General Scott James

"I don't feel that justice is being done in the courtroom right now," said Scott James, a twice elected county attorney from Dodge City, Kan. "Victims are coming to court and being frustrated that basically nothing has happened."

James moved in to the Oglala Sioux A.G.'s office on Feb. 5 and found a mountain of cases and a host of broken systems.

"It is a little dysfunctional at this point," he said sitting in his office at the Pine Ridge Public Safety Building. "There's not a good way to say it. I think it's full of a lot of good people but things have been allowed to break down on a lot of different sides."

He says that out of 20 trials scheduled only about two go forward.
"The problem was that people weren't showing up," he said.
Defendants didn't show up. Witnesses didn't show up. Police didn't show up. Even defense advocates didn't show up.

"That's a new one to me," he said.

So James, who said he's kind of in triage mode, made it his priority to put in place some working systems. He knows he has to tackle some big problems like the rampant methamphetamine use on the reservation but "we have to crawl before we can walk," he said.

Which is a breath of fresh air for his colleagues. Vernona Kills Right started as prosecutor on the reservation in 1982. She's seen a lot of changes but the last year has been tough with no A.G. and only two prosecutors.

"It felt like we were in a tunnel but all of a sudden they hired two more prosecutors and hired an attorney general and it was like you were in this tunnel and all of a sudden you come out in the light," she said. "Oh my God, there's hope here."

And a lot of work left to be done.

"I don't think any of the problems are insurmountable," said James, who holds a masters degree in philosophy and a law degree from Kansas University. "As long as we have the will."

Interim chief of police Mark Mesteth said he was glad to see some positive movement.

"It's good for us and bad for the bad guys," he said.