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Future of criminal justice reform unclear after committee meeting

Future of criminal justice reform unclear after committee meeting

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The chairman of the Incarceration Issues Committee remains confident the group can draft a criminal justice reform bill, but the scope may be more limited than some originally imagined.

“This will be dicey at best because of the budget stuff, but we can make an argument about the cost of doing nothing," said Committee Chairman Ron Carlisle, the Republican senator from Bismarck, referring to projections of $485 million in prison spending over the next 10 years if policies aren't changed.

In an interview Tuesday, Carlisle said the committee is likely to agree on decreasing penalties for drug possession, with the idea of getting addicts into treatment. Corrections and Rehabilitation Director LeAnn Bertsch said plans to beef up addiction and behavioral health services were also promising.

But other initiatives might take the form of pilot projects instead of across-the-board changes because of the fiscal climate and disagreement among committee members, Carlisle said. Legislators could then evaluate the projects and consider further reforms in the next interim.

For example, he cited an idea put forward by East Central District Judge Frank Racek at Monday's meeting to release select nonviolent offenders early into halfway houses to free up money for treatment programs. 

He also cited a proposal to establish a program in at least one judicial district that would use risk assessments and surveillance to release people awaiting trial, with the idea of relieving spending and overcrowding in jails.

Carlisle's goal is to pass a single bill with multiple provisions out of the committee put it to a vote in the next legislative session.

The piecemeal, pilot project-based approach is better than nothing, but not as promising as a comprehensive bill that touches on sentencing, probation and treatment, said Katie Mosehauer, a project manager with the Council of State Governments Justice Center who has helped oversee the study and policy discussion.

"We'll go where the state wants to go," she said. "Change needs to happen now."

Over the next month and a half, the Justice Center team will meet with each of the Incarceration Issues Committee members to discuss the draft bill and significantly rewrite the proposal that was heard Monday, Mosehauer said.

At the next meeting — which may be scheduled for two days — a vote will be taken on all the provisions in the draft bill by the six legislators on the Incarceration Issues Committee, as well as all the members of the Alternatives to Incarceration Committee, who have not yet been briefed on the group's research.

Mosehauer's team is likely to get a lot of feedback from committee members, who disagreed with the ideas put forward Monday. For example, Bertsch said she was "disappointed" by some of the recommendations.

"They were teetering around the edges and not getting to the heart of real criminal justice reform," said Bertsch, who believes the group put too much emphasis on probation and too little on long sentences. "We have to look at some of the penalties on the books rather than looking at alternatives yet to be built."

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at


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