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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 set of bills meant to reform the state corrections system has passed the Legislature. 

The four bills target different aspects of the criminal justice system, including sentencing, supervision and behavioral health services. And supporters of reform are optimistic the changes will slow growth in the prison system and provide solutions for people with drug problems. 

"It's going to reduce our over-reliance on incarceration to deal with addiction and behavioral health issues," said Leann Bertsch, director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Some of the bills are intended to reduce the "front-end" pressure on the criminal justice system, reducing the number of people going to prison and how long they spend there.

House Bill 1041 aims to reduce the prison population by reducing penalties for drug possession and making probation the presumptive sentence for low-level felonies. It also allows jails to give out good time, potentially shortening a person's prison sentence and creates a pretrial services pilot project to get low-risk people out of jail.

House Bill 1269 reduces the mandatory minimum penalties for drug dealing, while House Bill 1341 narrows the enhancements for selling or possessing drugs near schools.

Another bill attacks the problem from the other side, offering behavioral health services to people on supervision, so that there are alternatives for judges to sentence people besides jail.

Senate Bill 2015, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation budget bill, appropriates $7.5 million to provide behavioral health services to people on probation and parole. The goal is to build a tiered system, such that people even in small towns will have access to some peer support and addiction treatment. To pay for these services, the bill gives the corrections department authority to prioritize who goes to prison, in order to keep from contracting more space.

Reflecting on the two types of bills, Bertsch said, "I don't think you can do one without the other."

A fiscal note from the DOCR anticipates HB1041 will reduce the average daily inmate population by about 28 people for the 2017-2019 biennium, saving the state about $1.5 million. HB1269 is expected to save the state an additional $189,000 in the next two years.

Gov. Doug Burgum has signed SB2015 and HB1341. The other two bills still await his signature. Burgum has planned a press conference Friday to discuss criminal justice and behavioral health reform. 

Passage of HB1041 and SB2015 will allow the state to apply for $500,000 in additional assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the group that helped policymakers develop those bills over the legislative interim. CSG would help North Dakota implement the policies in those bills and track how well they're working.

This CSG assistance would be overseen by a committee made up of representatives from the DOCR, North Dakota Department of Human Services, North Dakota Supreme Court, North Dakota Attorney General and the state House and Senate. 

Marc Pelka, deputy director for the Council of State Governments Justice Reinvestment Initiative, who has advised the state on reform, called the bills "massive, landmark achievements for North Dakota."

"It's a tremendous lift to the state," Pelka said. "It reflects the desire to address challenges to the community behavioral health system and the criminal justice system."

Looking towards the next two years and the next legislative session, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said the question will be how well this all worked. Also, legislators will want to tackle how to provide human services and addiction treatment before people get into the criminal justice system. 

"It's been very, very fun to watch how smart public servants are realizing the root of this problem is addiction, not crime," Armstrong said.

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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