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When Director of Corrections and Rehabilitation Leann Bertsch announced a new “Justice Reinvestment” program to reduce the prison population and cut recidivism, this column hailed the program with a quotation from Governing, a magazine for state and local governments:

North Dakota is conducting a prison experiment unlike anything else in the United States.

Wow! That kind of national recognition is heady and important enough to try.

Leann had been to Norway and found that it had less recidivism than North Dakota and decided that this was the time to change tactics. Norway demonstrated a strong interest in closing the gap between life in prison and life back in society. So North Dakota is now doing the same.             

Motivated by the spiraling cost of hosting more and more prisoners, state policymakers were becoming concerned over the cost of around $50,000 per prisoner per year. Drugs are pushing the figures. In 2013, we had around 3,400 drug arrests, and in 2018 it was 5,400.

According to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, recorded by Sam Easter of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, “if we are not adequately and affordably addressing addiction and treatment for addiction, we are only going to see these people back in the criminal justice system time and again.”

With that ominous observation, we need to look at comments by those on the scene and detect what they are trying to tell us about the program.

Back to Attorney General Stenehjem: “We need to devote more resources…we’ve been addressing that, and the Legislature has, too, but not enough.”

Earlier this year, Aaron Birst of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys' Association said that $7 million for community behavioral health was not much at all.

Gov. Doug Burgum declined to say how much he would spend on behavioral health in the near future and admitted that we were not spending enough.

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Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick wouldn’t even guess.

Now what are these folks trying to tell us? They’re telling us the program is underfunded. I am saying that it is so underfunded that it is likely to fail.

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Unfortunately, the whole focus for both the legislative and executive branches has been reducing the cost of incarceration. It’s supposed to be a money-saver, but it won’t look like a money-saver if we have to make a heavy investment upfront. But that’s what it will take.

As a former state budget director, I can tell you that we are really looking at a costly change in the style of casework involving supervision and rehabilitation programs. We can’t do it on a ratio of one parole and probation officer to 50 convicts.

The idea is to help these prisoners find jobs and housing while adapting to their new social environment. That will take about one parole and probation officer per five convicts. Each prisoner will have many problems peculiar to his/her own situation, so counseling and assistance will have to be tailor-made.

Rep. Karla Rose Hanson of Fargo is hoping that networking with other agencies and organizations with related missions may relieve some of the pressure. Even if that increases the resources, the ultimate responsibility for success or failure will be with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

If we get the money and resources, the program could be a boon for convicts willing to change their lives.

The attorney general touched on rehabilitation when he noted that we needed to look beyond just cost-saving and see that “it’s the right thing to do for people who are addicted.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always do the right thing.

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Lloyd Omdahl is a political scientist and former North Dakota lieutenant governor. His column appears Sundays.

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