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Lawmakers and state officials in North Dakota see an interest in furthering justice reforms passed in 2017, as the governor has proposed expanding related behavioral health services.

In his budget address on Wednesday, Gov. Doug Burgum laid out $19.1 million in additional spending for behavioral health programs.

One of those is Free Through Recovery, an addiction recovery program for former inmates, borne on $7 million from the past session, from the package of bills tabbed as "justice reinvestment."

The governor's proposal would expand Free Through Recovery by $4.5 million to provide services to persons outside the criminal justice system, such as parents involved in social services or child protective services. 

Pam Sagness, director of the state Department of Human Services' Behavioral Health Division, said Free Through Recovery has built "significant" momentum since it started in January.

Expanding the program could improve other areas, such as fewer children placed out of home due to addicted parents, according to Sagness.

"I'm certainly still hearing people say behavioral health is still one of the key areas that we need to be able to impact if we're going to support the people in our state," she said. 

Steady improvements

As of November, Free Through Recovery had 556 participants, with 843 total referrals and 244 completions or discharges, according to Sagness. The program, which offers peer support and individualized recovery plans, has a capacity of 837 people.

About 70 percent of participants through September had achieved their goals in areas such as housing, employment and decreasing encounters with law enforcement, Sagness said. 

"That's really important," she said. "How do we help people to be successful when they're on probation or when they're in the community?"

State Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, vice chair of the legislative interim Justice Reinvestment Committee, said pretrial and incarceration treatment services for addicted persons are important, especially given the scale of the issue in North Dakota, which he described as "almost at an epidemic status." 

Early numbers show some improvements — such as a 6.5 percent decline in the North Dakota prison population in the 2018 fiscal year — but others bear continued watching, including treatment outcomes, he said.

"We'll be looking for those numbers to show that we're making the positive gains and getting people back into a situation where they can maintain independent living and get job skills to become productive members of society," Nelson said.

"That's the hope that we all have, and I think that's the best result for everyone."

Stopping a 'revolving door'

Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said legislators will likely bring forth some additional ideas, while the governor's budget recognizes "the progress that we've made," such as the prison population now decreased by almost 8 percent from 18 months ago. 

"I think it's really optimistic as far as what I've seen," Bertsch said.

A philosophy of "going upstream," or targeting early problems, has been a theme of the justice reforms, which Bertsch said is a point of the governor's budget. 

"I think that there's a huge recognition that a lot of times, when the corrections population is growing, it's because there's been a failure of other social institutions," Bertsch said.

In tackling the "revolving door" of addicted offenders going in and out of incarceration, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem points to a three-pronged approach of prevention, law enforcement and treatment — the latter of which had been "missing the most" of the three.

North Dakota's prisons were on an unsustainable trajectory for estimated population, Stenehjem said — after rising 32 percent in population from 2005 to 2015.

The attorney general said the governor's proposed additional spending for behavioral health programs "is a good thing" but may not meet all the treatment needs out there.

"I think that it is much more comprehensive than that," said Stenehjem, adding that about 80 percent of North Dakota inmates have addiction issues.

Stenehjem, recently re-elected to another term, has sued opioid manufacturers in federal court with other states for "overselling their product to the danger of our communities" and reaping "billions." 

"That money, though, should, I think, be going into the additional funding for treatment, and I want to see that that's what happens with it," Stenehjem said.

Law enforcement remains "critical" to the ongoing efforts, he added. Though his office cut five Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents from its 2019-21 budget due to the governor's budgeting guidelines, Stenehjem said Burgum restored them in recognition of their needed involvement.

'Positive reinforcement'

Whatever the discussions may be on continuing justice reforms, the attorney general said he'll visit with lawmakers and offer testimony on proposed legislation. 

State Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that evidence-based proposals would help discussions around increasing funding to certain programs. Considering whatever bills may lie ahead will involve a "careful balance," she added. 

"Once we get into the actual legislative process and we begin to listen to pros and cons on some of these bills, then we'll have a better idea," Larson said.

Bertsch said the declined prison population and other results offer "positive reinforcement" for the reforms. 

"Then if you continue to make those reforms and taking those savings and dollars and reinvesting them upfront into upfront strategies, that that's a really good expenditure of state tax dollars," she said.

Nelson said he doesn't yet know of any specific legislation proposed on the note of "justice reinvestment," but department heads may collaborate with lawmakers in session such as in 2017. Juvenile services may be one priority, he added.

"I think the Legislature will be receptive to the track we're on," Nelson said. "I think it's starting to show some results." 

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Capitol Reporter