BISMARCK — North Dakota's prison population is expected to grow at a slower pace under a package of reforms state lawmakers passed last year, according to a new report presented to legislators Thursday, Aug. 23.
The report, prepared by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said the state's prison population would reach 1,958 in fiscal year 2022, about 20 percent less than if no reforms had been enacted. The prison population totaled 1,829 when the first "justice reinvestment" policies became effective in April 2017 and dropped to 1,706 at the end of June of this year.
The report said the slower projected growth would amount to $64 million in "averted costs."
"While more time is needed to measure the full impacts of the justice reinvestment legislation I signed last year, the decline in our prison population is certainly a step in the right direction," Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement.
State Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, echoed that sentiment and said it's too early to tell what direct impacts the reforms have had.
"What we really want to do with these reforms is reserve our prison space for people who are a danger to public safety," she said. "So if it's a non-violent drug offense, it might make sense to get that person connected with services so it addresses the root cause."
Sheridan Watson, a spokeswoman for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, said the national nonprofit needs more time to "draw definite conclusions" about the prison population trend.
Prison admissions grew steadily in North Dakota until reaching a peak of 1,657 in fiscal year 2016, according to the CSG Justice Center report, before two straight years of modest declines. The report singled out an 8.4 percent drop in admissions for drug and alcohol offenses in the past two fiscal years.
North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch was unavailable for comment Thursday.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bills after years of ballooning corrections budgets and jail expansions amid crime rate increases.
The bills allowed the corrections department to credit an offender with time spent in custody before sentencing and commitment, set probation as the presumptive sentence for certain offenses and included funding for behavioral health services.
Lawmakers also reduced the penalty for first-time drug possession charges from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor and lifted the ban on people receiving benefits under two major government assistance programs for seven years after a felony drug conviction, among other changes.
Outgoing Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert, who's also a Republican state representative, was encouraged by the trends. His county opened a new detention center with neighboring Morton County last year after being "extremely overburdened" with inmates.
"We just have to make sure we're still protecting the citizens while reducing the tax burden," Heinert said during a break in the Justice Reinvestment Committee meeting at the state Capitol.
North Dakota has been working with the CSG Justice Center since early 2016 on reform efforts. The organization is providing "technical assistance" to the state on implementing legislation with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Watson said.