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North Dakota bill for mandatory minimums would cost $28.2 million over 5 years, estimates say

Attorney General Drew Wrigley calls fiscal note "fundamentally flawed," full of conjecture and attempt to deter support.

North Dakota State Penitentiary
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BISMARCK — A North Dakota bill that would set mandatory minimum sentences for gun-related crimes would cost an estimated $28.2 million over the next five years, state prison experts said.

The fiscal note prepared by the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or DOCR, which oversees prisons in the state, laid out details for additional inmates expected to be housed if Senate Bill 2107 passes.

The DOCR would need no additional beds in the first year of the bill’s enactment, but it would require 42 by the second year, the fiscal note said. By year five, the prison system would need 267 additional beds, the fiscal note said.

The legislation would go into effect Aug. 1 if passed.

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North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley.
Chris Flynn/The Forum

North Dakota Attorney Drew Wrigley, who is pushing the changes for minimum sentencing, said the fiscal note was "fundamentally flawed," full of conjecture and was an effort to deter support for the proposed legislation. The proposed legislation only applies to a subset of offenders, he said.

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"It doesn't take into account the most important thing: What's the price of public safety?" Wrigley told The Forum on Tuesday, Jan. 17, in a phone interview.

The fiscal note was written to approximate the estimated impact of the bill and resources needed to implement it, not deter support, DOCR Director Dave Krabbenhoft said.

"We are still working on the revised population estimates for adult men and women," he said. "When that is done, we will share and if necessary adjust the fiscal note to reflect those estimates.”

Wrigley’s bill would seek minimum mandatory sentences for violent and drug crimes in which defendants have a gun. Possessing a gun during one of those crimes would get a person at least three years in prison, brandishing a firearm would warrant five years and firing a gun would get a person at least seven years.

If a person breaks one of those laws twice, they would have to serve at least 10 years.

All sentences would be served consecutively with other convictions. A person couldn’t be eligible for parole until they serve at least 85% of their sentence.

The bill would also set mandatory minimums of 14 days in jail for fleeing police, as well as 30 days for simple assault and preventing arrest. A judge could give a lesser sentence for those three crimes if they provide a valid reason.

OTHER STORIES FROM APRIL BAUMGARTEN

Wrigley has cited a “significant increase” in violent crime as a reason behind the bill. He noted concerns of offenders getting out early and committing crimes again once free. The proposed legislation is meant to deter future crime and keep violent offenders off the streets, he said.

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“It’s eroding public quality of life, and it’s doing that because it is eroding public safety,” Wrigley said of the rising crime rates.

Attorneys have criticized the proposed legislation, claiming it would send prison populations skyrocketing, meaning more money spent on housing inmates.

The daily cost to house a person in a North Dakota prison is $141, Krabbenhoft said. However, the additional costs were based on daily jail housing since North Dakota prisons are either at or near capacity, according to statistics from the prison system.

That's because DOCR wouldn’t have the resources to handle additional inmates, the fiscal note said. It's possible some inmates would need to be sent to out-of-state facilities, according to the note.

“Right now, we are struggling not only with capacity but recruitment and retention of staff, as well,” he said.

Inmates with lesser medical or educational programming needs would be sent to jails, Krabbenhoft said. The average daily cost per inmate in jail is $105, the fiscal note said.

It also would require per year about $158,400 for two more transitional planning department employees, $33,500 for additional transport officers and $15,600 in transportation costs, the fiscal note said.

The prison system in North Dakota said it had 32 of 1,808 inmates in jails as of Jan. 16. More than 150 were in contracted facilities, according to its numbers.

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The fiscal note doesn’t include estimated costs for building facilities to house expected additional inmates. Another bill proposes funds to build a new prison for women, but that is not in response to SB 2107.

The fiscal note has several shortcomings, Wrigley said. The DOCR didn’t speak to him personally to discuss the costs.

The fiscal note writer reached out to the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office to ask about 2019-2021 statistics regarding crimes related to the bill. The office didn’t respond, the fiscal note said.

Wrigley questioned the number of additional inmate estimates and costs.

“It's unknown what these numbers are going to be, although I'll tell you what,” Wrigley said. “There's going to be a lot more people behind bars for a certain period of time and a longer period of time, and that equates to public safety.”

He said it was good that the bill would cost money. A person can’t commit a crime with a gun if they are in prison, he noted.

“The money is going to be spent to incapacitate violent criminals, to keep them away from the public, to keep them from committing further violent acts during their period of incarceration,” he said.

The bill also would increase workloads for public defenders since a defendant would have less incentive to plead guilty if they know they have to serve a certain amount of time.

Public defenders in North Dakota said they would need an estimated $338,823 to cover additional workloads created by the bill, according to the note.

The attorney general claimed costs for public defenders are the same whether a person pleads guilty or goes to trial. North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents Executive Director Travis Finck agreed in part to that statement.

A majority of defendants who need public defenders are assigned to attorneys who do contract work for the Legal Counsel for Indigents, Finck said. In fiscal year 2022, 72% of the public defenders office cases went to contracted attorneys.

Payment to contractors is based on a formula that involves figuring out the average amount of hours worked on a case, the executive director said. If contract attorneys take a case to trial, the amount of average hours worked goes up, Finck said.

Therefore, the cost goes up, he said.

Wrigley said he supports alternative sentencing for nonviolent crime, utilizing mental health to battle addiction and finding ways to reduce recidivism.

“They are not going to be able to defeat this by putting a flimsy price tag on it,” Wrigley said, adding he also plans to propose an amendment to SB 2107 that would allow prosecutors and defense attorneys to argue for a lesser minimum sentence if a defendant agrees to the sentence and pleads guilty.

He plans to speak with state’s attorneys about the proposal.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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