By James Macpherson
Gov. Doug Burgum, lawmakers, corrections officials and others on Friday hailed new legislation aimed at slowing prison growth by helping nonviolent offenders through treatment and sentencing alternatives, instead of warehousing them behind bars.
The Republican governor called the package of new laws he signed this week “landmark legislation” that addressed the underlying causes of North Dakota’s lockup rate, especially for non-violent drug offenders.
The legislation represents a major shift in North Dakota incarceration policies and comes at a time when the state’s correctional system is over capacity and inmate populations are increasing at some of the fastest rates in the nation.
Among bills signed by Burgum this week is a measure that lowers penalties for possessing drugs for first time offenders, with a goal to reserve that prison space for more dangerous criminals.
Burgum also signed a bill that appropriates $7 million to improve access to substance abuse treatment programs.
Lawmakers two years ago established the 16-member Incarceration Issues Committee to examine a potential overhaul of the state’s corrections system. The group, made up of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and prison officials, worked with a national organization to review the correctional system, while examining potential policy changes to cut recidivism and keep people out of prison.
Data show North Dakota’s state prisoner population has grown from 1,329 in 2005 to about 1,840 at present.
The state penitentiary in Bismarck saw a $64 million expansion completed in 2013 — the biggest since it was built in 1885 — but was full shortly after completion. County jails across the state are cramped, with jail populations growing from 959 people in 2005 to 1,700 this year.
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch said it costs North Dakota taxpayers about $41,000 annually to keep one inmate.
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