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Housing growing N.D. prison population could cost $485M by 2025

BISMARCK—Researchers working with North Dakota lawmakers on ways to reduce prison spending and reinvest the savings unveiled a "sobering" estimate Monday: Without policy action, the cost of contracting beds for the state's growing prison population will total $485 million through 2025.

"That's a pretty nasty number, and that doesn't including building" new prisons, said Katie Mosehauer, project manager for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, as she presented to the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee.

It's the first time lawmakers have heard an estimate of the so-called "cost of doing nothing" since the Justice Reinvestment Initiative was launched in January with support from the U.S. Justice Department and The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The initiative, assisted by the Justice Center, aims to identify steps lawmakers can take to ease pressure on the prison system while also reducing recidivism rates and improving overall public safety.

From 2005 to 2015, North Dakota's prison population climbed from 1,329 to 1,751 inmates, or about 32 percent, while the statewide jail population jumped by 83 percent to 1,754 inmates, according to the Justice Center.

With the prison population already exceeding the system's existing capacity of 1,515 beds, and a total inmate count that's projected to hit 3,061 by 2025, the Justice Center estimates it will cost $220 million to continue with the 530 beds currently under contract and an additional $265 million to accommodate the growth through contract beds, which likely would include out-of-state beds.

For perspective, the two-year budget for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is $215 million for 2015-17, up substantially from $131 million for 2007-09.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who chairs the 21-member committee, questioned when the department made the inmate projection and said he wants to see the underlying assumptions used, suggesting the increase may not turn out to be as substantial given the slowdown in oil and gas development in western North Dakota.

"We need to take a breath and see how much of it is driven by the absence or alleged absence of behavioral health" services, population and the Bakken, he said.

Justice Center researchers say the state can avoid big increases in corrections spending by reserving prison for the highest-risk people convicted of serious offenses, adding capacity for community-based treatment programs and focusing effective supervision and treatment on higher-risk probationers and parolees.

They'll meet Tuesday, June 7, with the Incarceration Issues Committee—a 16-member panel of lawmakers, corrections officials, judges, state's attorneys and law enforcement officials guiding the reinvestment initiative—for a closer look at data on prison admissions, access to treatment programs, recidivism rates and what other states have done after going through the initiative process.

The committee's recommendations will be crafted into legislation for the 2017 Legislature to consider.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.