Pine Ridge legal system bounces back from tough time

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PINE RIDGE VILLAGE, S.D. (KOTA TV) - A major makeover for the Pine Ridge criminal justice system. In just 18 months, the system has been through a dramatic transformation in hopes of increasing both efficiency and effectiveness.

The court system on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is back functioning smoothly after a period marked by challenges.

Not too long ago, the Pine Ridge justice system faced serious challenges and a massive case backlog. Today, things look 180 degrees different.

As the end of 2017, the Oglala Sioux Tribe had no chief judge, no attorney general, and no permanent police chief. There were holes in case files, missing reports, missing evidence, and police officers routinely refused to show up to testify in court. Criminal cases were falling through the cracks.

"I think the people had a general sense of frustration and angst when they talked about the court system," said Tribal Attorney General Scott James. "They'd think that, basically, problems would just not get solved here. Someone would get arrested and then the case would just kind of evaporate. They wouldn't know what happened with it."

But in late 2017 and early 2018, the tribe hired Chief Judge Charles Abourezk, Police Chief Robert Ecoffey and James, who, with a core of dedicated staff in each department, set out to turn things around.

"We've all cooperated to try to get problems solved that were problems for quite a while," said James. "We're not pointing fingers at each other and saying someone's to blame we're looking at each problem we've had and saying, 'How do we solve it? How do we fix it?'"

Abourezk adds, "It's a good process and I think we have very good communication with both the police and the attorney general."

Cases now get handled as they come in and are no longer backing up. Police officers show up to testify at trials.

"We have done a lot of training of the clerks and our staff at the court and I think we've got a court that I think is the equal of any state or federal court," said Abourezk.

And last month another sign of a healthy court system arrived.

"We've recently had some jury trials where we really saw how participating on a jury can help connect the people to their justice system," said Abourezk. "I'm very optimistic about this tribal court and the last year and a half has been a wonderful experience for me and I think we've got a number of things, positive things, to look forward to in the future."

The cleaning up of past messes isn't all done. Recently, James had to dismiss every traffic case from before 2010 because he just couldn't prosecute them.