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'Strong opinions' expected on bill draft for incarceration reform

Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England seen in this photo from April 2016. (Andrew Haffner / Forum News Service)

BISMARCK — Months of research and discussion about how to limit the costly growth of North Dakota's prison population will come to a head Monday, Sept. 19, when lawmakers and officials from the criminal justice system gather to hammer out a bill that the group's chairman expects will elicit "some strong opinions."

Researchers from the Council of State Governments (CSG) who have guided the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative since January will present their final report and policy recommendations during a joint meeting of the Legislature's Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration and Incarceration Issues Committee.

The senator who chairs both panels, Bismarck Republican Ron Carlisle, said legislators, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement leaders and others will go piece-by-piece through a bill draft containing roughly two dozen provisions aimed at easing prison overcrowding and reducing recidivism rates.

"I absolutely want a bill draft out by the end of the day," he said. "It may have some dings and bruises on it."

Marc Pelka, deputy director of CSG's state division, said the council will offer four policy recommendations designed to avert prison growth and generate savings for the state by not having to contract for prison beds.

One recommendation, which met resistance from a judge and prosecutor at the commission's July meeting, will be to sentence those convicted of low-level property and drug offenses at the Class C felony level or below to probation.

"The purpose is to reserve prison space for serious and violent offenses," Pelka said.

Another key recommendation would have the state reinvest a portion of the savings into community-based treatment to reduce re-offense rates.

A third proposal would expand options available to probation officers so that probation violators would be punished with "swift and certain" periods of incarceration followed by supervision and treatment, Pelka said. Instead of revoking a violator's probation and sending them straight back to prison, they would face an "intermediate" step such as a short jail hold of 24 to 72 hours, he said.

Finally, CSG will recommend focusing probation resources on those most likely to reoffend, in large part by allowing those who are complying with the terms of their probation to earn early discharge "so that officers can devote their time meaningfully to people who are at a high risk of re-offense," Pelka said.

Carlisle said he expects a lively debate over the recommendations and provisions in his bill draft, including one that would change the distance from a school at which drug dealing becomes an elevated offense, reducing it from 1,000 feet to 300 feet.

"There's going to be some strong opinions," he said.

Data presented by the CSG earlier this year showed the state's prison population jumped from 1,329 to 1,751 inmates, or about 32 percent, from 2005 to 2015, while the statewide jail population climbed 83 percent, from 959 to 1,754 inmates. Friday's one-day prison count was 1,800 inmates, a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman said.

Under current trends, the department has projected the prison population will grow by 75 percent in the next decade.

Carlisle said budget constraints will make incarceration reform even more challenging, and he expects the bill draft that emerges Monday won't get settled until the end of next year's session, which begins Jan. 3 and is limited to 80 legislative days.

The alternative to incarceration reform is continuing to build more prisons and jails, he said.

"If they kick the can down the road, we better send a checkbook with it," he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.