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Stepping Stones Resource Center

Alan Kaggwa relaxes at Fraser Ltd.'s Stepping Stones Resource Center in Fargo, which provides a safe environment and sleep space, as well as food, clothing and personal care items, for young adults. Fraser is one of the providers that will participate in the Free Through Recovery initiative.

Patrick Springer, Forum News Service

The Bismarck Tribune has been supportive of efforts to reduce the state’s prison population whether through reducing the recidivism rate, changing sentencing guidelines or other reforms.

That’s why the Free Through Recovery program that begins Thursday has great potential. The Legislature approved $7 million for the effort to be guided by human services and corrections officials. They will tap into social service, mental health, religious and cultural organizations throughout state to prevent those on probation from re-offending.

The goal is to provide a wide variety of support services for those on probation deemed at risk of again offending and going back to prison for problems due to addiction or mental health issues.

Professionals will be available to provide support for those on probation vulnerable to the worst elements of society. Going back into the community after serving time in prison isn’t easy. Finding someone willing to hire you isn’t a snap, getting a place to rent can be hard and the temptations of a “free” life can be daunting.

The state needs to do something. Prison populations and budgets have been increasing over the years. The state spent $64 million for construction and renovation of the North Dakota State Penitentiary, while the prison population increased 32 percent over the decade ending in 2015. It’s been estimated the penitentiary population could grow 75 percent by 2025, doubling current prison capacity of 1,479 beds.

"Prisons are a finite resource. We can't keep building our way out of the problem," Lisa Peterson, clinical director for the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Forum News Service.

She echoes comments made by Leann Bertsch, director of the corrections department. Bertsch has been arguing for reforms to help curb recidivism and find other ways to reduce the prison population. The Legislature has been searching for solutions and Free Through Recovery is hopefully one of the answers.

We can’t save everyone from themselves, but we can make a dent in the problem. Results of the program will be tracked and if it shows success it might be expanded. If the state’s prison recidivism rate dropped from around 60 percent to the high 40-percent range, that would be considered a success.

In many ways this is considered a community, not a prison, program. Professionals in communities around the state will be asked to help. Service providers won’t be paid for delivering services, instead they will be rewarded for better outcomes through a pay-for-performance reimbursement program. This makes it a results-based program. There also will be peer mentors, trained people who have overcome life experiences similar to those they'll be helping. The program has support of those working in corrections and those involved in a variety of organizations. While prison officials work with inmates to get them on the right track, there’s always the potential of more-hardened inmates influencing other inmates to commit further crimes.

We need to create productive citizens and Free Through Recovery could accomplish this goal. This program won’t empty the prisons, but it can help reduce the number of inmates and possibly the size of the budget.