By Nick Smith
A centerpiece of state criminal justice reform efforts this session inched one step further in its legislative journey after unanimously clearing the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning.
“There are some that will benefit from this,” said Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, adding the state should try to help those whose lives can be turned around through such options as better access to treatment. “We have to try some new things.”
Changes in state law under House Bill 1041 include decreasing the penalty for people convicted of a first-time offense for ingesting drugs or possession of paraphernalia from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor. Drug-free school zones also are reduced from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.
Another key change is no longer denying people convicted of felony drug offenses from access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for a period of time upon release. The bill strikes existing language requiring a seven-year period after a person’s most recent felony conviction before accessing the program.
“If there is no safety net for them, what they turn to is what got them in trouble in the first place,” committee chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said.
There was some skepticism expressed during committee discussion prior to a vote, which resulted in a 14-0 “do pass” recommendation.
“Where do we go with this bill in two years if it doesn’t work like we hope it will?” Sen. Bill Bowman, R-Bowman, asked of the bill, a product of interim legislative work on criminal justice reform alongside the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Bowman questioned whether the move toward reducing the number of incarcerated people guarantees any significant changes in the system or savings for the state.
“Sometimes, that’s the only place they can be,” Bowman said of people being put in prison.
Robinson conceded to Bowman that some people will not be rehabilitated.
“There are some that will benefit from this,” said Robinson, adding the state should try to help those whose lives can be turned around through better access to treatment. “We have to try some new things.”
Data touted by state corrections officials during the session points to a sharp increase in the state’s incarcerated population and costs to house them.
Daily inmate counts have risen 249 percent, from just over 510 in 1992 to more than 1,790 this year, with about an 18.8 percent statewide population increase during the same period. State spending for corrections was $81.7 million for the 2003-05 biennium; it had jumped to $215.3 million for the 2015-17 biennium.
Multiple cities across the state are considering or in the process of expanding their jails to accommodate the upward trend.
HB1041 was forwarded back to the Senate Judiciary Committee following the vote. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said the bill will be moved out immediately this week.