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Prison glut needs to be resolved

  • Updated

It’s likely by the end of the year that the state will be shipping some of its prison inmates out of state. The probable destination is Colorado. How many inmates will go and at what cost hasn’t been determined.

North Dakota completed a $64 million expansion of the state penitentiary last year, but it didn’t take long to reach capacity. The prison system recently exceeded 1,800 inmates — a record level and 500 more inmates than Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, would like to see. North Dakota doesn’t take inmates from other states except in straight-up swaps. If the state has an inmate who needs to be moved, say he needs protection, it will trade him for an inmate from another state. The state doesn’t make any money in the trade.

The overcrowding is a disturbing trend, much of it blamed on fallout from oil development. Whatever the causes, and the Tribune has said this before, we need to find ways to reduce inmate populations.

This isn’t just a problem at the state level. It appears the  combined jail being built for Burleigh and Morton counties will open to record numbers.

State officials are aware of the problem and have been working on solutions. The Legislature approved legislation this year giving judges more sentencing leeway for some crimes and lowered penalties for possessing drug paraphernalia in hopes of opening up jail and prison space. An 18-member commission has been studying alternatives to doing time, including enhanced treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent criminal offenders.

On the national level, the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration has been considering reforms to reduce incarcerations and increase public safety. North Dakotans are taking part in this group.

These are good steps, but we don’t have a lot of time. Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, who chairs the North Dakota commission, notes it will be awhile before we see results from the reforms enacted by the Legislature. Bertsch told the Associated Press that the prison system population has tripled since 1995 and if the current incarceration pace continues, the prison population will double in the next decade and quadruple in 20 years. That will be costly. Lawmakers this spring approved nearly $32 million for contract inmate housing and addiction treatment over the next two-year budget, up nearly $10 million from the previous budget. The state needs to find ways to eliminate the need for this kind of spending.

The Tribune supports funding for addiction treatment and rehabilitation. While rehab centers will cost in the front end, if we can keep people from reoffending, the costs will drop in the long run. We need to send people back into society who are able to contribute. The odds of that happening diminish when we put them into an overcrowded prison system.

This problem isn’t unique to North Dakota, it’s a problem across the country. The steps being taken so far should be commended, but we can’t let up. Before we approve more money for more cell space we need to consider all the alternatives. We repeat what we wrote in an earlier editorial: Some offenders need to be locked up a long time, others need less time or no time, but services must be available to help keep them from reoffending.

The time for finding solutions is now.


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