By Caroline Grueskin
The state’s top jurist said a package of corrections bills signed by the governor this week was more than fiscally savvy.
“It is not only money, it is the right thing to do,” said Gerald VandeWalle, chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court.
VandeWalle was speaking at a press conference Friday afternoon, surrounded by members of all three branches of government, including the governor, attorney general and members of both political parties and state houses.
Gov. Doug Burgum was announcing his approval of four bills — House Bills 1041, 1269 and 1341 and Senate Bill 2015 — passed this session to reform the criminal justice system by reducing the number of people sent to prison and improving services for people under supervision.
The bills reduce penalties for drug possession, cut down minimum mandatory sentences, put more people on probation, give prisons and jails authority to manage their numbers and provide for $7.5 million in behavioral health treatment for people on probation and parole.
The state got assistance in developing some of the bills from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which worked with legislators, policymakers and providers to collect data on the state system and formulate ideas for reform.
“This was a tremendous team effort to get to this point,” Burgum said. “This is some landmark legislation that has come through years of work.”
Though VandeWalle said the bills were still just a “first step,” a legislator said some of the ideas contained in them would have been “nonstarters” even four years ago.
A CSG interim study said the state’s prison population grew 32 percent from 2005 to 2015, from 1,329 to 1,751 people. During that period, the state population grew 17 percent, according to census records.
Without changes, CSG projected that number would grow another 36 percent by 2022 and cost an additional $115 million. The group’s studies also found that behavioral health services were lacking around the state, and most judges had sentenced someone to prison, because they knew there were not services near home.
Leann Bertsch said Wednesday the prison population is about 1,800 now. There are also 1,700 in county jails and 7,300 on parole or probation, according to DOCR records.
“This accumulated over time, so over the years when it was get tough on crime, it was every session we were passing more and more laws,” Bertsch said. “The cumulative impact is why we are here today with a lot of people incarcerated.”
Responding to the increasing populations, North Dakota expanded its prison and counties built more jails, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem recalled.
“We came to realize that this was an economically unsustainable process,” he said. “We also finally admitted that most of the people that are incarcerated for whatever reason across North Dakota are either there because they have committed drug or alcohol-related offenses or they have addiction issues.
“We finally admitted that is the root cause, and we need to address that.”
Rep. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo, chair of the interim human services committee, called the bills the “shining start success” in behavioral health reform this session.
“What we’re learning with this project will inform what we do with other services in the next 20 years,” Hogan said.