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A balancing act: State officials continually trying to tackle issues surrounding drug crimes

Nearly one-third of North Dakota's prison inmates in 2016 were drug and alcohol offenders, a number that has slowly risen over the past five years. During the 2017 legislative session, the North Dakota Legislature started steps to keep high level...

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Nearly one-third of North Dakota's prison inmates in 2016 were drug and alcohol offenders, a number that has slowly risen over the past five years.

During the 2017 legislative session, the North Dakota Legislature started steps to keep high level drug dealers and violent criminals behind bars, while providing the help drug addicts may need, including changing some felonies to misdemeanors and reducing minimum mandatory sentences for some crimes..

As of Dec. 31, 2016 there were 1,791 inmates in the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to the department's yearly report. There were 565 drug and alcohol offenders in the system, or 31.5 percent of inmates. Of these, 316 were serving time for delivery, manufacturing or intent to deliver drugs, 220 for possession and the remaining 29 for alcohol-related offenders.

In comparison, of the 1,440 inmates in 2011, 359 - or 24.9 percent - were incarcerated for drug and alcohol related crimes. By 2014 that number had risen to 502 inmates serving a sentence for a drug or alcohol conviction.

According to the most recently available statistics from the DOCR, the average sentence imposed by judges for drug and alcohol offenses in 2016 was 27.52 months This number excludes those serving life sentences.

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Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said during the last session, the Legislature reduced the minimum mandatory sentences for some drug-crimes in half. Armstrong said most prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges don't like minimum mandatory sentences because there are so many additional factors that can influence a sentencing period.

"There's two kinds of people who deal drugs, the professional criminals who we want to lock up and then the addict who's dealing to support their habit, we want to hold them accountable but we want to be able to deal with the particular facts and circumstances with each of their cases," he said. "The best people to do that are the prosecutors, the defense attorney and the judge."

The Legislature also reduced first-offense possession crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor this past session. Minimum mandatory sentences for violent crimes, professional dealers and other related offenses remain the same.

"We have to start incarcerating people we're scared of, not people we're mad at," Armstrong said.

Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, has been in the North Dakota Senate since 2013 and worked on multiple committees looking at incarceration issues during the 2015-16 interim session. One committee, the Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration, solicited feedback from numerous stakeholders from across the state to lay the groundwork for addressing the state's drug crime issues, Grabinger said.

"In my opinion it was a very worthwhile committee that brought everybody to the table that needed to be there to try and address these issues," he said. "... It was a big committee yet it was effective and was headed in the right direction. Everybody was concerned with the problems that we had in the state and wanted to address it."

Having a felony count on someone's record can greatly impact the rest of their life, making it difficult for them to get and maintain employment or find housing, among other things, Grabinger said.

"Most of us know once you put a felony on someone's record they're opportunity to advance in life becomes a lot more difficult," he said. "We were strapping a lot of people that really had addiction issues with felony counts. ... There's a multitude of things that need to be done to address this but it really comes down to treatment and getting people the help that they need, giving judges the options they need to get these people the help rather than just locking them up."

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The criminal justice system wants to hold people accountable for breaking the law and then never see them again, which is why rehabilitation is so important, Armstrong said.

"Rapists, murderers, pedophiles, I could care less about rehabilitation, lock them up and leave them there and I fundamentally believe that," he said. "Drug crimes and alcohol crimes are crimes that are often times committed by people who would never commit any other crime. They're not going to steal from you, they're not going to rob you, they're not going to beat you up. ... Drug-related crimes are often committed by people who don't have a criminal mind."

In the past, drugs like crack cocaine, methamphetamine and others were considered an epidemic across the United States, but Armstrong said it could be difficult for a lot of people to relate because issues were primarily in poorer areas of the state and country. However, the opioid crisis has affected people of all races, genders and income levels and "triggered a conversation" about how to deal with the problem more effectively, Armstrong said.

"If we get a handle on the opioid crisis I can promise you there's going to be another one," Armstrong said. "Drug use has been done since (the beginning of) modern civilization and it's going to continue to be done."

Armstrong said he has typically been a "cynic" to government solving social problems, but he is encouraged to see so many people across North Dakota working together to tackle the issues surrounding drug crimes.

"Everything we do will be an imperfect solution to a really complex problem, but the fact that the discussion is occurring almost on a daily basis gives me hope," Armstrong said.

"Will we get there? Yes, I think we will. Will we solve it? Absolutely not. We're not going to solve the addiction crisis but what we can do is offer people hope and help while we still hold them accountable."

Related Topics: KELLY ARMSTRONGCRIME
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