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Pretrial services likely next focus of North Dakota justice reform

LeAnn Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, presents her department's 2019-21 budget to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday, March 15. The budget proposes a $750,000 pilot project for pretrial services in North Dakota. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Efforts are underway from multiple branches of state government to study pretrial detention and services for potential reform in North Dakota.

The North Dakota Supreme Court has authorized the Pretrial Detention Reform Subcommittee, comprising judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, chaired by Justice Jon Jensen.

And the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation seeks a pilot project in its 2019-21 budget to implement pretrial services.

Both the court's and DOCR's initiatives are in the vein of "justice reinvestment," a package of bills passed in the 2017 legislative session that sought to reduce recidivism and address offenders' behavioral health.

Each effort could bring forth recommendations for rules or legislation for the 2021 legislative session.

'The right way to look at it'

Suggested from the Minority Justice Implementation Committee, the Pretrial Detention Reform Subcommittee seeks to study national initiatives or other states' judicial practices that North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said are a bit overdue.

"That's the movement now, is to get people out, rather than keep them incarcerated," VandeWalle said. "And I think that's the right way to look at it."

Among the subcommittee's likely focus are uniform bail practices and conditions of release for nonviolent offenders, according to State Court Administrator Sally Holewa. Pretrial services for people released on their own recognizance are likely another focus.

Holewa also said the subcommittee may spend a year studying its issues, followed by months of work on proposals.

Travis Finck, deputy director of the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents, is one of the subcommittee's 13 members. He said the group's outline is still being determined, but will likely look at individual jurisdictions' bail practices, such as amounts some defendants simply cannot afford.

"You should not be held in custody just because you're poor or you're indigent," Finck said. "Now that's probably more my stance on it than maybe where the committee as a whole falls, but ... I think this is one of the next big things, really, in indigent defense."

Pat Bohn, director of parole and probation for DOCR, also is on the subcommittee. He said some defendants just can't make their bond.

"For some people, $200, $300 is like setting a bond at $20,000, $30,000," Bohn said.

Sitting in jail can "destabilize" a person, he added. Two or three days' incarceration can cost a defendant their wages or even their job.

They also can miss doses of medication, mental health services and rent payments for housing.

"You can see where that might go, in terms of them spinning further along into the cycle of recidivism," Bohn said.

Pretrial pilot

In its 2019-21 budget, the DOCR has proposed a pilot project for pretrial services, costing $750,000 with seven full-time employees, including a program manager to lay the groundwork in the first year.

Pretrial services would help "sort people into buckets," Bohn said, such as defendants released on personal recognizance, those requiring bond and those with potentially higher risks to miss court dates or commit other crimes.

Bohn said about two staff each at three pilot sites would do the pretrial assessments and supervision work beginning in 2020 that would provide some data for the 2021 legislative session.

He added he'd like to see interest from district courts, attorneys and local law enforcement in urban and rural areas, eastern and western North Dakota and Indian reservations.

"I'm hoping that we can get a good cross-section of North Dakota in these three pilot sites so that then we'd at least have some information to bring forward to the Legislature for the 2021-23 biennium," Bohn said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee heard the DOCR's 2019-21 budget bill Friday, with committee work to come.

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