By John Hageman
BISMARCK — The head of North Dakota’s corrections department hopes to see results soon in the state’s efforts to slow and reduce a growing inmate population after the recent passage of criminal justice reform legislation.
Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, pointed to a provision in her department’s budget that requires it to develop a “prison population management plan” to prioritize admissions based on sentences and space availability. That bill also requires local correctional facilities to create an inmate population plan.
State agency budget bills went into effect Saturday, July 1, the start of a new biennium.
“With the inmate prioritization plan going in July 1, I would say within the next half of the year we’ll probably start seeing how it’s going to impact jails and prison,” Bertsch said. “Locking more people up really doesn’t make the state safer.”
Those provisions are just parts of a wider criminal justice reform effort lawmakers took up this year, which were touted by top state officials like Gov. Doug Burgum, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle. Faced with growing inmate populations — North Dakota’s prison population grew by 32 percent between 2005 and 2015 — officials said they hope to shift more focus to behavioral health treatment and away from the expensive prospect of expanding jail capacity.
Bertsch said the reform will require a “culture shift” in the criminal justice system.
“I think the law changes are just kind of the tools to allow those things to happen but the actual practitioners need to embrace the changes to make these law changes effective,” she said.
Some of the changes have already gone into effect, such as a provision reducing the penalty for first-time drug possession charges from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor. Lawmakers also lifted the ban on people receiving benefits under two major programs — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — for seven years after a felony drug conviction.
Another change setting probation as the presumptive sentence for those guilty of a first-time Class C felony or Class A misdemeanor offense doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1. The “presumptive probation” provision includes exceptions for domestic violence, crimes that require registration or involve a weapon and other “aggravating factors.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said reducing first-time drug possession charges was a major change that could help give a second chance to young people whose career prospects would be otherwise hampered by a felony conviction.
“You get a young kid, a younger adult who’s got a lot of things going for them but gets caught up in some addiction things, this will at least give them a shot to get their life cleaned up and not have that felony chasing them the rest of their life,” he said.
Aaron Birst, executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorney’s Association, expressed discomfort about some of the changes but said prosecutors are generally on board with reform. He said the $7 million set aside in the DOCR budget for a community behavioral health program is “not much at all.”
“If you just reduce the penalties and there’s no accompanying treatment facilities that will take those folks, you haven’t really solved any problem,” he said. “The principle is agreeable, but that’s not the end of the analysis.”
Bertsch said the $7 million is a “good first step toward addressing the behavioral health needs” of those in the criminal justice system.
“I think the next step that’s very much needed in our state is that we expand behavioral health services for everyone, regardless of whether they’re involved with the criminal justice system,” she said.