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Just a short walk away from two courthouses in Bismarck, a crowd gathered Saturday to learn about criminal justice reform.

A few hundred people were on hand for the Gamechanger Ideas Festival at the Belle Mehus Auditorium. The North Dakota Humanities Council's annual symposium included speakers, such as criminologist Tom Gash and author Piper Kerman, presenting on topics such as preventative measures, community building and justice enforcement in a country with a reputation for imprisonment.

"We have the highest prisoner population in the world, and the justification for locking up so many men, women and children is that it makes us safer," said moderator and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser.

Gash proposed ideas on opportunity reduction and public safety measures. From discouraging car thefts with trackers and computers, to reducing sizes of drinks and glasses to curtail alcohol-related assaults, the public can do a lot, he said.

"Most people are not sophisticated, planning thieves," he said.

Early intervention in people's decision making also can help, according to Gash, adding that, despite this knowledge and learned efforts, a culture of punishment continues.

"If you think about patterns of punishment across the world, they vary a great amount," he said, from Finland to Scotland to Canada and their respective prison rates and crime trends.

Media also has its effects, Gash said.

"It's the hero and the villain. The film finishes when the bad guy dies," he said.

For Kerman, the author behind the book-turned-Netflix series "Orange is the New Black," her experience while incarcerated wasn't what she expected. She spent a year in a women's prison for money laundering.

"The last thing I expected to experience on my first day in prison was kindness at the hands of the other women," she said. "It was not the cage we shared, it was the connection that we had between us."

Jails and prisons are built intentionally as harsh places, and prisoner disparities exist on many levels, she said.

From race to poverty to gender, the demographics of incarcerated individuals show fine lines, such as the 650 percent increase in incarcerated women in the last 40 years in the United States.

"We have chosen to incarcerate people in this country who we would not have in prior generations," Kerman said. "All Americans are not policed in the same way. All Americans are not prosecuted in the same way. All Americans are not punished in the same way."

Monetizing impoverished defendants with cash bails, caring about inmates' futures after release and "banishing" people from society are other concerning topics as well, Kerman said.

"So it's on us to be the communities we really want to have," she said. "I hope we are reaching the point where we realize we cannot banish our problems."

In panel discussion, Gash and Alameda County (Calif.) Deputy Sheriff and artist Jinho "J. Piper" Ferreira agreed.

"I wish we had a more nuanced system that enforces justice properly," Ferreira said.

"Mentally ill people do not get better in prison," Kerman said. "The conditions of confinement do not help them get better."

"Prison is not the place to fix people or support people," Gash said.

Kerman also lauded North Dakota for its "thoughtful, intentional reforms around how to run correctional facilities in the country."

"There are some good changes afoot," she said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or