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N.D. launches jail system review

Marc Pelka, deputy director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and Project Manager Katie Mosehauer present data to the Incarceration Issues Committee on Tuesday at the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. mike nowatzki | Forum news service

BISMARCK—With its jails and prisons overcrowded and incarceration costs on the rise, North Dakota launched an effort with a national partner Tuesday to curb spending on corrections and reinvest the savings in ways that reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

State lawmakers approved a top-to-bottom review of the state's criminal justice system last year, creating an Incarceration Issues Committee to guide the effort.

The governor's office and judicial branch joined them in asking the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts for support to pursue the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

"North Dakota is by no means behind the curve on this issue. We consider ourselves a leader in reforming our corrections system," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said during a press conference before the committee's first meeting. "But we always strive to do better and fully recognize the strains placed on our local and state resources."

Researchers with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center are assisting the effort, collecting and analyzing data which they began presenting Tuesday.

It showed that the state's prison population jumped from 1,329 to 1,751 inmates, or about 32 percent, from 2005 to 2015, while the statewide jail population climbed 83 percent from 959 to 1,754 inmates.

If current trends continue, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation projects the prison population will grow by 75 percent in the next decade.

Costs also have risen sharply, with the department's general fund budget increasing from $131 million during the 2007-09 budget cycle to a $215 million appropriation this biennium.

"Without action, public safety dollars will be consumed trying to keep up with growth rather than investing in crime and recidivism reduction strategies," justice center Deputy Director Marc Pelka said.

Counties already are planning an unprecedented number of expansions. A recent survey by the North Dakota Association of Counties found that of the 23 county jail facilities licensed to hold inmates for more than 96 hours, nine plan to expand or build new correctional facilities, which would boost statewide jail capacity by 840 beds, or 48 percent.

The 16-member committee of lawmakers, corrections officials, judges, state's attorneys and law enforcement officials will use the data to craft what the committee's chairman, Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, said he hopes will be an "all-encompassing bill" for lawmakers to consider in 2017.

Several committee members stressed the need to ease the burden on jails by improving gaps in behavioral health services, which a consultant in 2014 found to be in crisis status in the western part of the state where population increases driven by the state's oil boom have strained services.

Corrections Department Director Leann Bertsch said she hopes a large part of the discussion will focus on how to improve facilities to make them more conducive to changing behavior.

"It's not about being tough on crime. It's about being smart on crime," she said.

North Dakota is the 25th state to use the reinvestment initiative approach with assistance from the justice center. Montana launched a similar effort last November.

The committee is expected to receive the final report in November.

The Legislature set aside $50,000 for consulting services for the study, but the CSG's role is funded by Pew and the federal bureau, so the money hasn't been spent, Carlisle said.

Mike Nowatzki

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