The North Dakota Senate agreed to remove mandatory minimum sentences for several drug crimes Thursday, sending the bill to Gov. Doug Burgum.
House Bill 1183 deletes minimum sentencing requirements for second and subsequent offenses for manufacturing or delivering controlled substances. Proponents argued in favor of giving judges more leeway rather than imposing mandates that have done little to deter crime.
“The court still has its full availability of the maximum penalty at hand,” said Pat Bohn, the director of parole and probation for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “This just gives … the discretion back to where it really needs to be, and that’s with the court.”
The 2017 Legislature reduced drug manufacturing and dealing sentence requirements as lawmakers undertook other criminal justice reforms aimed at addressing rising inmate populations and corrections budgets. A second conviction for dealing methamphetamine, a Class B felony, carries a minimum three-year sentence under current state law, representing one mandate that this year's bill would eliminate.
The Senate passed the bill in a 44-1 vote Thursday after the House easily approved it two weeks ago. Fargo Republican Rep. Tom Kading is its primary sponsor.
Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives at The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., said North Dakota's efforts reflect national trends at the state and federal levels to relax mandatory minimums.
A fiscal note prepared by the state corrections department predicted the bill would reduce average sentence lengths and result in fewer “prison bed days” used, easing the burden on correctional resources. The analysis didn't estimate a specific financial impact.
The department said there were 34 people serving a minimum mandatory drug sentence in the state’s prison system as of early January.
Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, said North Dakota's sentencing requirements have been used against defendants in "low-level drug crimes" who can easily be replaced by other offenders. Drug arrests here increased by 49 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to the attorney general's office.
"The use of mandatory minimum sentences do not seem to be having a desired deterrent effect that was initially sought," Bakke said.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office didn’t testify on the bill and doesn’t comment on pending legislation, a spokeswoman said. A lobbyist for county prosecutors said the bill wasn’t high priority for their organization.
Burgum, a Republican, doesn't generally comment on bills before they reach his desk, but he has supported past criminal justice reform efforts.