North Dakota wants to reduce the number of inmates in the state prison and provide treatment for those with drug problems and behavioral issues. It’s the smart thing to do, but it won’t be easy and it will take time.
There are growing pains involved and that was apparent in a story last Sunday by reporter Caroline Grueskin. Sheriffs across the state voiced concern about a number of bills passed by the Legislature intended to reduce the number of prison inmates. Legislators, state officials and others are worried by research showing the state prison population could grow by 36 percent and $130 million by 2022. Among the goals of the new legislation is to avoid sending people to prison for lesser offenses and to provide them with treatment so they don’t reoffend.
Among the new laws is a provision to reduce the penalty for first-time drug possession from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor and reduce mandatory minimums for drug charges. The new laws also ask state and local correctional facilities to prioritize who gets locked up. If the penitentiary is full, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation can make inmates wait in county jail until there is room. Regional judicial districts are required to come up with plans to manage their inmate populations and stay within budgets.
Many sheriffs see this as the state passing the buck back to them. They are being given the responsibility of housing the inmates and providing treatment for them, especially if it’s court ordered. Some rural areas lack treatment facilities and professionals needed to provide the care. Jail space is increasing in the state, with capacity expected to grow from 1,765 to 2,633 beds. The prison system housed 1,791 people at the end of 2016. It’s not the intention of the Legislature to fill the jails, instead they want to rehabilitate as many offenders as possible.
One way the Legislature and state hope to accomplish this is through Senate Bill 2015. The measure allocated $7 million for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The focus of the initiative is to reduce repeat offenses, cut incarceration rates and help with housing and employment. The program is being launched in in Dickinson, Fargo, Devils Lake and Bismarck and involves the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Department of Human Services, and probation and parole officers.
If successful, the initiative could help resolve some of the issues troubling sheriffs.
The sheriffs want to be part of the solution but they are worried about available resources. Burleigh and Morton counties have built a joint detention center and the new facility offers them some opportunities lacking in the past.
Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert says those opportunities include work release, re-entry counseling and increased chaplain and Alcoholics Anonymous groups. The counties won’t have to haul prisoners to other jails due to overcrowding, providing the prisoners with more stability.
As Heinert told the Tribune earlier, “We just can’t open the doors any longer and let them walk out.” Instead, all correctional facilities, whether county or state, need to provide the groundwork for prisoners to have a second chance.
As noted earlier there will be growing pains involved in these changes. There will be successes and failures and we shouldn’t let the failures deter us. The alternative of building more jails and prisons and locking up more people shouldn’t be an acceptable choice. The best answer is for everyone to work together to solve the problem.