The "staggering" increase in North Dakota's prison population stands in stark contrast to the perception North Dakotans have of themselves. It represents a cultural shift in attitudes and policy that undermines history and heritage that, until a couple of decades ago, were distinguished by counting the fewest prisoners in state prisons and local jails. Now those facilities are at or near capacity, and projections indicate the population of the state's prison population will jump by at least 67 percent in the next 10 years. There is nothing to be proud about in those numbers.

In testimony to legislators this week, Department of Corrections officials sounded the alarm. They emphasized that even as the state spent hundreds of millions on a new prison, capacity will be strained in a few years if incarceration trends continue. And they likely will continue because of what one official described as "a culture of criminalization." That is, a change in law enforcement and the justice system that categorizes conduct previously not viewed as criminal as crime. Therefore, more offenders, many of whom are not violent or dangerous, go to prison.

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North Dakota is particularly guilty of using the corrections system as a dumping ground for mentally ill offenders because the state lacks adequate treatment options. Also, sentencing guidelines and legislative mandates demand jail time for nonviolent offenders and minor drug infractions. Judges often have no good choices. The result is monumental costs to taxpayers for little or no return to society.

The cost is out of control. The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new prison space, and tens of millions more are spent every year on unnecessary incarcerations. Instead of funding alternatives to prison, such as mental health services, ramped-up probation and other sentencing alternatives, the Legislature has poured money into bricks and mortar. It's a losing formula, as the numbers confirm. Is North Dakota safer? Is the crime rate down?

Well, say some lawmakers, it's about "those people" coming into oil country. It's about "those people" being settled in the big cities. That sort of self-serving parochialism won't cut it. The system is broken, having been manipulated by cynical politicians to shore up their tough-on-crime sham.

It's time to be smart on crime. It's time to concede that the system as structured now is about retribution and revenge, not rehabilitation and corrections. It's time to redirect money from prison cells to crime prevention, mental health services and community-based options.