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Grover Norquist, right, president of Americans for Tax Reform, speaks on justice reinvestment as part of a panel in front of North Dakota legislators in February in the state Capitol. Seated from right are Marc Levin, of Right on Crime from Texas, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, and LeAnn Bertsch, of the North Dakota Department of Corrections.

A nationally known anti-tax leader said North Dakota is on the right path with legislative efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice system in order to provide long-term savings to taxpayers while reducing the number of incarcerated individuals.

State officials on Monday hosted Grover Norquist , president of Americans for Tax Reform, during a panel discussion in the Brynhild Haugland Room inside the Capitol on bills the state is reviewing.

“Nobody’s asking North Dakota to be a guinea pig,” Norquist said of the state's reform efforts. “This is an issue that has succeeded as a bipartisan idea.”

For several months during the interim, lawmakers worked on the issue with the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Norquist said states, such as Texas and Georgia, have instituted similar reforms in the past decade and have experienced subsequent declines in their incarcerated populations as well as increased access to substance abuse treatment.

Norquist’s nonprofit group is against tax increases and is known for having conservative politicians from across the country sign a pledge to not raise taxes.

He said the efforts of other states has proven that redirecting dollars to areas such as probation, parole and treatment rather than locking up increasing numbers of people is more cost-effective.

“The question is how much do you need to spend on prisons, police and courts?” Norquist said.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch agreed, saying the state has seen sharp increases in the prison population in recent years.

Daily inmate counts have risen 249 percent, from just over 510 in 1992 to more than 1,790 this year, with an 18.8 percent statewide population increase during the same period. State spending for corrections was $81.7 million for the 2003-05 biennium; it had jumped to $215.3 million for the 2015-17 biennium.

“The get tough on crime era obviously went overboard,” said Bertsch, pointing out that pre-trial services was one area which would be helpful in keeping people from sitting in jail and becoming more susceptible to committing further crimes.

House Bill 1041, which is still being worked on in appropriations, has a number of changes in state law. Among them is decreasing the penalty for people convicted for a first-time offense for ingesting drugs or possession of paraphernalia from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor. Drug-free school zones are also reduced from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.

Senate Bill 2274 is the behavioral health component, which would establish programming for such services as conditions for parole and sentencing alternatives.

Also on the panel was Marc Levin, policy director for Austin, Texas-based group Right on Crime. The group promotes conservative policies for criminal justice reform.

“I think you’re well on your way,” Levin said of the legislation being considered.

Several years ago, Texas shifted its criminal justice policy by changing its approach on addressing low-level drug offenders, according to Levin, who said the state also shifted funds to behavioral health and substance abuse programming, leading to reduced recidivism rates.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said the pendulum is swinging back from the era of being tough on crime. 

“Can we be tough on crime and be smart on crime?” said Koppelman, adding that he believes the answer is yes.

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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