Wrigley aims for new mandatory minimums for some crimes; opponents cite high cost
Supporters say crime has jumped and claim minimum sentences could deter that, but opponents argue minimum sentences rarely work, clog the court and prison system, and would be costly to the state.
BISMARCK — A bill that would set minimum punishments for gun-related crimes, resisting arrest and fleeing police is meant to address rising crime rates in the state, supporters said.
But the proposed changes could have costly consequences, attorneys warned.
Details regarding North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley’s pitch of tougher jail and prison sentences emerged this week in the form of Senate Bill 2107. The former U.S. attorney for North Dakota has cited an increase of violent crime in defense of setting mandatory minimum sentences in the state.
“If you talk to any law enforcement officer, he or she would likely tell you that the instances of encountering violence and fleeing has increased greatly over the past several years,” North Dakota League of Cities Deputy Director Stephanie Dassinger Engebretson, said Wednesday, Jan. 4, during a Senate Judiciary Committee at the State Capitol. Seeing individuals who have been convicted of dangerous crimes on the street after a short amount of time is causing morale issues with law enforcement, she said.
Wrigley told the committee the bill would attempt to address escalating crime in the state.
Travis Finck, executive director for the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, said the bill could clog the court system with more trials and overcrowd prisons and jails.
It also would cost the state a significant amount of money and likely would do little to reduce crime, Bismarck Attorney Lloyd Suhr said.
“If I were to describe this bill in one sentence, it is, everyone goes to prison, everyone goes to jail and it is going to cost a lot,” Suhr said.
A large portion of the bill focuses on minimum sentences for felony crimes of violence and drug trafficking. A person convicted of possessing a firearm while committing those crimes would have to serve at least three years if the bill is passed. Brandishing the firearm in the commission of those crimes would get a person at least five years behind bars, and firing the weapon would carry a minimum punishment of seven years.
Simply possessing a gun with a silencer, a short-barreled rifle or shotgun, machine gun, submachine gun or fully automatic rifle while committing a violent crime or drug trafficking would be punishable by at least seven years.
If a person is convicted of possessing a gun twice while committing a crime of violence or drug trafficking, they would serve at least 10 years in prison.
The sentences would be served on top of sentences for other crimes.
The bill also sets “presumptive” minimum sentences of 14 days in jail for resisting arrest and 30 days for simple assault and fleeing law enforcement.
A judge could give a lesser punishment if they present a reason.
Shooting at an inhabited building or camper, as well as an occupied vehicle or aircraft, would be a Class B felony, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.
The bill also adds people who are prohibited from owning guns, including fugitives, those who enter the country illegally, those who are dishonorably discharged, those convicted of minor domestic violence crimes and a person who unlawfully uses or is addicted to a controlled substance.
North Dakota violent crime has increased from 1,296 instances per 100,000 in 2017 to 1,556.2 per capita in 2021, according to numbers from Wrigley’s office. That’s about a 20% increase, with a 10% rise from 2020 to 2021.
Wrigley said people who flee police don't receive additional consequences. Sentences for fleeing are often served concurrently with other punishments.
"It's almost irrational not to flee," he said.
Having judges explain reasoning for giving lesser sentences would give the public transparency, Wrigley said.
Having minimum penalties disincentivizes defendants from participating in plea bargaining, Finck said, meaning more people will go to trial and put stress on the system. Finck said public defense attorneys are already stressed, and he is not sure there would be enough attorneys to handle an expected increased need for lawyers.
“The reason that scares the commission is, we are on the verge of a crisis right now in North Dakota for indigent defense,” he said.
Research shows mandatory minimum sentences are rarely effective, Finck said. There is a trend in the U.S. of moving away from using minimum sentences.
“This bill seems to be going in the other direction,” he said, noting more people are expected to go to jail or prison.
Sen. Janne Myrdal, a Republican from Edinburg who serves on the judiciary committee, told Finck she understands his concerns.
“However, the safety of the public is the other element,” Myrdal said, adding incarceration serves to punish offenders and protect the public. “We have to balance that.”
Implementing mandatory minimum penalties sends a message that judges can’t be trusted to properly sentence offenders, Suhr said. He criticized the bill as shadowing federal minimum sentences.
Suhr questioned why a fiscal note that would show what costs would be associated with the bill has not been prepared. North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Dave Krabbenhoft said his office hasn’t had a chance to analyze potential costs.
“There’s a lot in there that we need to unravel and really kind of see what the effect will be on our resources,” he said.
He said his department is about public safety, but the prison system is full. The bill likely will have a fiscal impact on DOCR facilities.
The committee created a subcommittee to discuss the bill.