The Rest of the Story

Forum News reporter Andrew Hazzard says, “Recent changes to North Dakota state law have put more of a burden on local jails to house inmates.”

By Pat Merriman

As predicted, the state’s legislative and executive branches’ experiment with “reforming” the criminal justice system in North Dakota, results in, “county sheriffs and jail administrators concerned their facilities will fill up fast.”

They should be. The NDDOCR “now has the ability to shut its doors, effectively putting on a no vacancy light at the prison and forcing county jails to hold inmates…” Translation? Just because someone gets “sentenced to the pen, there’s no guarantee they will ever go… we could have people here sentenced to the pen and serve most of their time locally.”

All at local taxpayer expense. “Although the DOC has yet to reach the point where it has to tell counties to hold their prisoners until space clears out… it’s likely they reach that point in the next couple of months.” Coupled with the changes that reduce first-time drug possession cases (including meth and heroin) from felonies to misdemeanors, “makes it so those convicted serve their sentences in county jails, not state facilities.”

Hazzard correctly points out, unfortunately, “These changes to the law did not include additional funding for local governments, which bear the costs of incarceration.” Local sheriffs are asking for a comprehensive study of what these future costs are going to be—Grand Forks County commissioners “gave the go-ahead to proceed with a $49,200 jail needs assessment study.”

Some counties, like McKenzie, are building new jails. Others, like Traill County are remodeling theirs. Estimates are that at least another 886 beds, “new jail projects in 2017, according to the North Dakota Association of Counties.” The price tag? $230 million says NDAC.

But, it’s not just bed space. New/expanded jails require adequate staffing and programs too. Bismarck Tribune reporter Caroline Grueskin reports that Mercer County Sheriff Dean Danzeisen is emphatic, “his facility doesn’t have the services offenders need and can get at the prison. And there aren’t resources near him for people seeking treatment outside jail.” Of particular concern, are rumors that the state is going to be doubling the maximum time an offender can sit in a county jail from 1 to 2 years, thus, invoking other problems.

Concerns that outdoor recreation, medical, psychiatric and drug programs will become mandatory in local jails. Danzeisen states, “You can decriminalize things, but that’s just a way to sit them in county jail and not provide them any services. We don’t have addiction counselors and psychiatrists and all those things that these people need.”

Of particular concern to this author is the statement by NDDOCR Director Leann Bertsch that local States Attorneys can solve the problem, “If a prosecutor wants someone to serve a certain amount of time, they’ll charge differently and recommend sentences differently. It won’t be so dependent on just what the Legislature did.” Huh? We just file lesser charges and, ignore public safety?

Or, her excuse that “sheriffs aren’t thinking about the resources the new laws gave them to deal with growing inmate populations…alternatives to physical custody such as work release, drug treatment, GPS monitoring and pretrial supervision…they should never ever have to build another jail bed in this state…They just need to change their philosophy, the fact of the matter is they’ll have a lot more money if they start funding alternatives.”

Political double-speak aside, there is no “viable” alternative and, the money simply isn’t there to fund them anyway. Again, the issue isn’t just one of rehabilitation, it’s also public safety. How ’bout we discuss that too?

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