April 23, 2017

The Bismarck Tribune

The Tribune has advocated for some time for changes to reduce the number of inmates serving time in North Dakota. The Legislature has passed legislation this session that should help reach that goal.

It wasn’t easy for legislators to make the changes in what’s known as a law and order state, but it was the right thing to do. We have too many inmates serving sentences who would do better on the outside. We aren’t saying they should be able to go about daily life without any consequences for breaking the law. However, they have a better chance of being rehabilitated on the outside with proper supervision and encouragement.

In a story Friday, reporter Caroline Grueskin explained four bills likely to reduce the prison population and costs.

House Bill 1041 reduces penalties for drug possession and makes probation the presumptive sentence for low-level felonies. The bill also allows jails to give good time, which could shorten a person’s prison sentence and creates a pretrial services pilot project to get low-risk people out of jail.

House Bill 1269 reduces the mandatory minimum penalties for drug dealing and House Bill 1341 narrows the enhancements for selling or possessing drugs near schools.

The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget bill, Senate Bill 2015, includes $7.5 million to provide behavioral health services to people on probation and parole. The intention is to build a tiered system, so people even in small towns will have access to some peer support and addiction treatment. To pay for these services, the bill gives the corrections department authority to prioritize who goes to prison, in order to keep from contracting more space.

“It’s going to reduce our over-reliance on incarceration to deal with addiction and behavioral health issues,” Leann Bertsch, director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told Grueskin. That’s a good goal.

Will the opportunities provided by these bills work for everyone? No, there will always be some trying to use the system for their advantage. If, in the end, it works for the majority, the state will come out ahead.

The DOCR anticipates HB1041 will reduce the average daily inmate population by about 28 during the 2017-19 biennium, saving the state about $1.5 million. HB1269 is expected to save the state $189,000 in the next two years.

While the savings are a key benefit, the most important aspect of the legislation is the reduction in the inmate population. Despite efforts by the prison system to help inmates, there are many soured by the experience or lured into other criminal activities by other prisoners. If they go to prison with addiction problems or health issues there’s a good chance they will come out with the same problems.

If we can find ways to get to the core of the problems prompting illegal behavior and get people to live productive lives, society will benefit.

“It’s been very, very fun to watch how smart public servants are realizing the root of this problem is addiction, not crime,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said.

These bills are hopefully the beginning of reforms that result in less crime, cost savings and smaller prison populations.

Source: JusticeCenter