A different approach: Local, state officials and legislators discuss implementation of community behavioral health system

As the jail and prison populations across North Dakota continue rise along with the cost of incarceration, state officials are trying to ensure that first-time offenders and those with behavioral health issues stay out of the system.

As the jail and prison populations across North Dakota continue rise along with the cost of incarceration, state officials are trying to ensure that first-time offenders and those with behavioral health issues stay out of the system.

Area leaders in behavioral health, local legislators and state officials gathered at the West River Community Center in Dickinson on Wednesday to discuss the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The initiative will work with those on pretrial, probation and/or parole in an attempt to identify behavioral health needs that, if not attended to, could result in relapse, violation of conditions of parole, probation or pretrial status. It would also seek to help prevent any new offenses from occurring.

State agencies have been reviewing what the needs are, specifically in rural areas, where they know there is a shortage of mental and behavioral health resources, said Pamela Sagness, behavioral health division director for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

The pilot program was allocated $7 million in Senate Bill 2015 during the latest legislative session, with proposed implementation sites in Dickinson, Fargo, Devils Lake and Bismarck. It involves the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Department of Human Services, and probation and parole officers.

Sagness said the goal is to reduce the number of 24/7 violations, reduce re-arrest and incarceration rates, and increase days in stable housing and employment for those in the program. Another key are the community care coordination agencies such as Community Options.


"Our state, at times, has criminalized behavioral health, instead of treating behavioral health," she said. "That's really the crux of it. We know that incarcerating individuals actually makes them worse and doesn't necessarily help them find recovery or meaningfully contribute to society."

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36, said there has been a shift in public opinion and culture when it comes to views on addicts. He said for years there was a stance across the country to be hard on drug addicts.

"The shift has been coming and I think it's been coming slowly and then all of the sudden it really caught fire," he said. "... I think what's changed is that jails are full, court systems are seeing revolving-door defendants and you're starting to see prosecutors, judges and sheriffs saying, 'We can't continue down this path, we have to figure out a different way to deal with these people.' "

The shift in opinions on subjects like drug addiction and recidivism, along with the growth of the corrections budget, helped to launch the idea for the program.

"This is the part of criminal justice reinvestment that is hard," Armstrong said. "It's a lot easier to say, 'We can't just keep locking people up.' The point is, we have to figure out a more dynamic way to deliver treatment and services to those people so they don't get locked up and if they do get out, they don't get locked up a second time."

North Dakota is sixth in the nation for drug and alcohol abuse, but 43rd in behavioral health workforce availability, according to Steve Allen with the Council of State Governments. He said in a CSG survey, only 12 percent of probation officers said substance abuse treatment was available and accessible for their clients, and about 70 percent of judges indicated they sentenced people to prison just to get them some treatment.

Sagness said one of the main challenges facing the program is finding ways to "build crosswalks" among behavioral health professionals, city officials, social services programs and private providers. She said the program hopes to bridge those gaps so someone can get the right care they need.

"It's just something that will be new for some communities to really be able to do that cross-cutting work," she said. "I think it's a learning curve. I think that we have to learn as a state and individuals and businesses and families a different approach. I think many times we look as jail as the alternative because it's all we know. So, being able to educate ourselves on what is going to bring better outcomes for our communities."


Armstrong said dealing with an addicted population is a challenge, whether it's to drugs, alcohol or opioids. Another challenge facing the program will be interagency cooperation, as well as finding resources.

"This isn't a binary choice," he said. "We're not taking them out of prison and putting them in a treatment bed. That's not what we're doing. So what we're trying to create is a situation where they get the services they need within the community without having to lock them up for extended periods of time."

Addressing drug addiction and behavioral health has also been on the mind of state Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner.

"(Behavioral health) is probably as big a issue as there is in the state of North Dakota: dealing with drugs, dealing with the people who get hooked on them and trying to rehabilitate them," he said.

To Wardner, behavioral health sits at the cross-section of drug addiction, mental health issues and the criminal justice system. For too long, Wardner believes, the state has been incarcerating low-risk, drug-addicted populations rather than helping rehabilitate them.

Wardner has not always taken such a progressive approach to drug rehabilitation. When he was a young member of the state House, he was a staunch believer in tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences and the three strikes rule. After a few years, he said he and a similar-minded colleague looked at each other and said, "this ain't working."

He now believes that less-punitive approaches will not only provide easier paths for low-risk addicts to "get their life back together," but will also save North Dakota money.

"The cost of incarceration is huge. We can find a better way," he said.



What To Read Next
Get Local