N.D. prison chief welcomes group calling for reforms to reduce incarcerations
BISMARCK – North Dakota’s top prison official welcomed news Wednesday that more than 100 current and former law enforcement leaders from across the country – including several with ties to the region – will push for reforms to reduce incarcerations and boost public safety.
Director Leann Bertsch said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has more than 1,800 inmates but only 1,300 beds and will likely start shipping inmates to a private prison in Colorado within the next two months because local and regional jails contracted to accept state inmates also are full.
“Basically all the services are taxed at this point,” she said.
To address the issue, the group Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration announced its policy priorities Wednesday in Washington, D.C., calling for more alternatives to arrest and prosecution, reclassifying some felonies to misdemeanors, reducing or eliminating minimum mandatory sentencing laws and strengthening ties between law enforcement and communities.
Bertsch said the policies are consistent with her stance that the state should be locking up dangerous criminals and looking at other ways to modify the behavior of those who don’t pose a threat to public safety. North Dakota’s inmate population is projected to increase by more than two-thirds in the next decade if current trends continue, and legislative appropriations to the department have more than doubled in the past decade, to $215 million for the current biennium that started July 1.
“I think it’s pretty gratifying to see other individuals in other areas of the criminal justice system recognizing that we need to do something different other than building more prisons,” she said.
The group, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, says government spending on jails and prisons has increased by almost 400 percent over the past 30 years, with the nation’s prison system now costing $80 billion a year.
Ronal Serpas, former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department and the group’s co-chairman, said the way the country is currently approaching criminal justice does not ensure public safety.
“In fact, it makes our jobs much more difficult. Arresting and imprisoning low-level offenders prevents us from dedicating that time to serious offenders and repeat violent offenders,” he said.
President Barack Obama was scheduled to host members of the group at the White House on Thursday to discuss their effort.
Member Tim Purdon, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota and current partner at Robins Kaplan law firm in Bismarck, said states including California, New York and Texas have shown that it’s possible to reduce prison populations and crimes rates simultaneously.
North Dakota can do both by spending more on mental health services and drug addiction treatment, which in turn will reduce spending on corrections, Purdon said.
“If you did that, the Department of Corrections wouldn’t need to be warehousing these guys,” he said.
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney, also a member of the group, echoed Purdon’s sentiments, saying county sheriffs “are the providers of the largest mental health institutions in the world, and that’s our biggest problem.”
The Cass County Jail was last expanded in 2007, but officials are already studying the need for additional space, with inmate counts consistently running between 250 and 290 for the 348-bed facility, he said.
While advocating for more mental health and addiction services to “treat the root of the problem and not the results,” Laney said he also knows the public will demand accountability.
“I’m not saying by any means that we give a free pass to people who commit burglaries because they have a drug problem,” he said. “But if it’s a nonviolent crime and they can be sentenced to treatment and be cured, they’re probably not going to be out committing a burglary to feed a drug habit.”
The North Dakota Legislature has assigned an interim Incarceration Issues Committee to study treatment options, pretrial services, sentencing alternatives and other issues that may help reduce the state’s prison population.