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New England women’s prison stakeholders meet with legislators to discuss budget issues

The state's top prison official said a more strategic approach for North Dakota criminal justice might center less on boosting finances and more on reducing headcounts during a Monday meeting focused on the funding shortages at the state women's ...

The state’s top prison official said a more strategic approach for North Dakota criminal justice might center less on boosting finances and more on reducing headcounts during a Monday meeting focused on the funding shortages at the state women’s prison in New England.

Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state has “nothing to be proud of” in regards to its high female incarceration rate, which is sending an increasing number of female inmates through the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in the small town about 25 miles south of Dickinson.

“Instead of just thinking about how to get more money for a women’s prison, perhaps we need to be thinking more strategically of how to reduce the number of women we’re locking up,” she said. “I think you can’t have one discussion without the other, and frankly I would like to see the numbers go back down to where it was comfortable where the DWCRC was operating.”

A wide group of corrections administrators and county and state officials met at the Stark County Courthouse for around two hours to discuss the financial and operational outlook of the DWCRC.

The women’s prison is owned and operated by the six counties participating in the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center -- Stark, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Hettinger and Slope counties. Though ownership is regional, the facility contracts with the state Department of Corrections to provide space for prisoners from across North Dakota and is reportedly underfunded by more than $1 million following the effects of the recent statewide 4.05 percent budget cut to public entities, compounded with what prison administrators say was incomplete funding for the current biennium.

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Last Wednesday, Gov. Jack Dalrymple announced state agencies must cut an additional 6 percent for the next legislative biennium, though he said the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, along with the state Department of Human Services, would not be held strictly to the budget cut.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told representatives of the prison that the facility’s funding shortages need to be taken up with state legislators.

“I’ll tell you that corrections are being squeezed,” Wardner said. “We in the Legislature need to take a good look at trying to find some solutions to this.”

Wardner wasn’t the only state lawmaker in attendance. North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Kelly Armstrong, a state senator from Dickinson, and state Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, took notes and participated in the discussion throughout the meeting.

County commissioners whose areas participate in ownership and operations of the DWCRC also spoke about their own stake in the correctional facility.


‘On the plus side, not the minus’

DWCRC warden Rachelle Juntunen, Stark County Commissioner Duane Wolf and Connie Monson, financial administrator at the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center in Dickinson, delivered an informational presentation that painted an image of a facility with resources stretched thin to meet record-setting numbers of incoming prisoners.

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Juntunen said the facility was overcapacity for about 86 percent of 2015 and, as of the end of March, has been overcapacity 90 percent of this year. Despite the overcapacity issues, the prison has been receiving a monthly stipend from the state based on its regular capacity of 126 beds.

The result, Monson continued, is a “big stumbling block” of operational losses. When looking at state reimbursements in total, she said, the facility has lost about $865,000 so far, which she described as a “huge cost.”

John Plaggemeyer, a Hettinger County commissioner who represents the New England area, said the situation ultimately came down to that cost.

“I don’t know anyone who would contract indefinitely and deficit spend,” he said. “We would like to continue on with the service, but I think we need to have some dialogue someplace, get to the point where, as a contractor, we’re on the plus side, not the minus.”


‘Not going to spend our way out of this’

Bertsch said the percentage increase in North Dakota female incarceration rates are “significantly outpacing” that of the state’s male prisoners.

The women in the North Dakota prison system, she said, generally present a low security risk and often have high needs for various forms of treatment. Bertsch said the DWCRC has low treatment resources available and serves as the orientation center for all of the state’s female inmates.

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That means the prisoners who go there don’t often stay for very long before being transferred to other facilities, but that the intake center is kept at a high level of activity.

“The fact of the matter is that orientation reception in our men’s facility and our women’s facility gets a lot of pressure when we’re moving inmates through the system,” Bertsch said, adding that such pressure was just one part of an expanding inmate population.

At various points, discussion turned away from just the funding question to the matter of reducing the number of inmates entering the prison system as a whole. The legislators agreed with Bertsch that the human pressure on the justice system needed to be alleviated in some way.

“The reality is, we’re not going to spend our way out of this,” said Armstrong, adding the state would need to determine how to deliver criminal justice for offenders that fall within non-violent.

Related Topics: DICKINSONNEW ENGLANDCRIME
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