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Jail time not always the best option

Proposed legislation that could stem North Dakota’s incarceration rates makes sense, not only for public safety but also for the efficiency of the court system. Draft bills reported out of a legislative commission last week aim to take pressure off crowded jails and prisons, and give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing for some offenses.

That last initiative could go a long way toward restoring common-sense proportionality and judicial latitude in the state’s courtrooms. The decades-old legislatively imposed mandatory sentence regime has clogged the corrections system and the courts with offenders who are not violent and mostly are not threats to society. Rates of imprisonment climbed as the so-called (and failed) “war on drugs” escalated. Many offenders were incarcerated because judges could not take into account individual circumstances, and had to impose sentences within sentencing guidelines, which in practice are sentencing mandates.

The commission’s legislation would reduce the severity of charges for specific nonviolent crimes. Commission members also recognized that prison or jail becomes a last resort for relatively minor nonviolent offenders because the state lacks treatment options. Judges have few choices.

North Dakota’s jail population (in the state penitentiary system and in regional jails) has skyrocketed in the past two decades in large part because of sentencing mandates. Moreover, the expense of incarceration is far higher than treatment or other transitional services for nonviolent offenders. Prisons and jails have become a growth industry, and no state should take pride in that circumstance.

There’s a better way. The commission’s proposed legislation is an excellent first step toward stimulating a debate about how best to reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety.