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In North Dakota, there’s growing recognition of need for re-entry programs

GRAND FORKS — At the Lake Region Residential Reentry Center in Devils Lake, former inmates get a place to stay after leaving prison, but they have to visit the local employment agency to come up with a plan.

Carla Higgins, a manager at the Job Service North Dakota office around the corner, said they each have to meet one on one with her staff.

They’ll have their educational level and work experience reviewed, and staff will help them apply for jobs and learn interview skills. They may also get tuition assistance for job training.

The goal of the re-entry center is to help inmates who have paid their debt to society get back on their feet and avoid making the same mistakes that put them in prison. The center, located not far from the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, is unusual in North Dakota in that it also regularly works with American Indians.

“Right now the only (state facility) that has a quasi re-entry program with tribal involvement is the Lake Region Reentry Center,” said Pat Bohn, who oversees transitional planning services for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But re-entry programs may be just what North Dakota and other states need to further reduce crime rates and save justice system money. And there’s recognition in some quarters that such programs need to focus on Indian Country better.

“There’s a fundamental sea change going on across the country regarding how you deal with crime,” said Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota.

In February, he told Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing that more must be done. He said he is working with probation officers and the court to try to provide support for inmates leaving prison.

Recidivism

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, correctional policy was focused mostly on penalties and punishment. But with prisons filling up and a stubborn recidivism rate, researchers have questioned the efficacy of the tough-on-crime mentality.

According to a 2011 study on recidivism by the Pew Center on the States, the rate at which offenders re-offend around the nation hovered at a little more than 40 percent between 1999 and 2007, the latest statistics available for the study.

In North Dakota, the recidivism rate is at 38.8 percent. That is, almost four in 10 offenders were rearrested in 2010 within three years of being released from state prison.

Recent studies have suggested that focusing on offender re-entry — work training and placement, chemical dependency treatment and housing assistance — might help reduce recidivism.

But re-entry centers like the one in Devils Lake do not often exist in Indian Country.

At the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, social services Division Chief Jodi Abbott said she helps former offenders develop a plan for employment and find chemical dependency programs if needed.

But, she said, “we’re not a re-entry program.”

The state Corrections Department lists transition facilities in Bismarck, Devils Lake, Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Mandan. Some are at state facilities, such as the State Hospital in Jamestown, and some are private, such as Centre Inc.’s Grand Forks facility. Few are close to a reservation.

At the Senate committee hearing, PIn April, Purdon convened a meeting to explore options for a pilot re-entry program for former offenders returning to Standing Rock, he said. “We are very much at an early stage of discussing how we can work together to coordinate our response to reduce recidivism.”

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