FARGO -- North Dakota is embarking upon an ambitious social experiment. If successful, the effort will allow the state to stop expanding jails and prisons by providing more community support for those at risk of incarceration.
The effort is called Free Through Recovery and involves a partnership steered by human services and corrections officials working through a web of social service, mental health, religious and cultural organizations throughout North Dakota.
The North Dakota Legislature has set aside $7 million to launch the initiative, enough money to provide a wide array of support services for people on probation deemed at risk of once again ending up behind bars for problems arising from addiction or mental health issues.
The effort launches Thursday, Feb. 1, with participating service providers having the capacity to handle 600 offenders. Results about outcomes will be reported and, if the effort demonstrates success, it could expand in future years.
“We have to get better results,” said Judge Frank Racek, presiding judge of the East-Central District Court, based in Fargo. “We want to actually reduce the number of crimes and resulting problems.”
Capt. Andrew Frobig, administrator of the Cass County Jail, welcomes the initiative. About half of the jail’s inmates, he said, are repeat offenders, many with drug or alcohol problems, who cycle through as many as six or even 10 times a year.
“I think it has potential,” Frobig said, noting Fargo has ample support services. But, he added: “The person has to want to get cured of their addiction. They have to be a willing participant.”
Not enough jails
The Free Through Recovery experiment follows years of rising corrections budgets, including $64 million for construction and renovation of the North Dakota State Penitentiary, and a mushrooming prison population, which increased 32 percent over the decade ending in 2015.
Officials, already grappling with a state system that was full, confronted a projection that the penitentiary population could skyrocket 75 percent by 2025, doubling current prison capacity of 1,479 beds.
“Prisons are a finite resource,” said Lisa Peterson, clinical director for the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “We can’t keep building our way out of the problem.”
She compared the Free Through Recovery approach to an emphasis on preventive health instead of treating people with acute problems in the emergency room.
“It’s actually a community-based program,” Peterson said. “It’s not a prison-based program.”
Initially, Free Through Recovery will target those who have been released on probation or parole and connect them to services aimed at helping them to rebuild their lives and prevent them from reoffending.
About one in five North Dakota prison cells is occupied by an inmate locked up for violating probation.
The drive to reduce imprisonment rates reflects widespread acknowledgement that a corrections system focused on punishment and confinement often fails to put a person on a successful path. In fact, by separating inmates from jobs and the support of family and friends, jail or prison often exacerbates problems, officials said.
“Criminalizing behavioral health isn’t helping anyone,” said Pamela Sagness, who directs behavioral health for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. Imprisonment has impacts on lives beyond the person serving the sentence, she added.
“What happens to the rest of the family?” Sagness said. Incarceration creates other problems, including added pressures on foster care and other services.
To achieve better results, Free Through Recovery will assess probationers’ risks and needs. A care coordinator will refer the person to any of a variety of local services, including addiction counseling and other behavioral health services.
Through coordinating and working together, the intent is for local officials and service providers to fill gaps in clients’ needs to prevent them from going astray.
If it works, that will be an improvement over the current system, where probationers are essentially passed along from agency to organization, often with little coordination, Racek said.
The new approach, which relies on social science research, will require society and the criminal justice system to be more comfortable with a greater reliance on assessment and service coordination, he said.
Offenders who have been sentenced to probation are a logical population to start with, Racek said. “These are people already on probation,” he said. “What we have to do is keep them from failing.”
Peer mentors will help
If the effort is successful, North Dakota’s prison recidivism rate could drop from around 60 percent to the high 40-percent range, Racek said. “We’re not trying to eradicate it, but reduce the problem,” he added. “In the course of that, we have to make sure that the public is safe.”
Also, rehabilitating non-violent offenders would allow more corrections space for violent and predatory criminals who should receive long sentences to protect the public.
“We want room in our prison for those offenders,” Racek said.
Service providers will be rewarded for better outcomes through a pay-for-performance reimbursement program. That’s a shift away from paying for delivering services, regardless of results.
“Are our resources incentivizing sickness rather than wellness?” Sagness said.
The pay-for-performance incentives will encourage providers to experiment until they find a way to succeed, which could help to end the cycle of recidivism, Frobig said.
Peer mentors will play a major role in helping Free Through Recovery clients. They are trained people who have overcome life experiences similar to those they’ll be helping.