Editorial: ND's Free Through Recovery is a bold experiment

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North Dakota is trying to avoid a prison-building boom. The state has watched its prisons and jails fill up in recent years and has spent $64 million for construction and renovation of the new state penitentiary. Now the state faces the daunting projection that its prison population could double by 2025 if present trends continue. It would cost an estimated $115 million in new state spending by 2022 to cover the cost of securing contract beds to handle the inmate overpopulation.

Clearly, something significant must be done. Quickly. That something is Free Through Recovery, an ambitious initiative that was launched last week. North Dakota is investing $7.5 million over the next two years, including $7 million to pay for addiction counseling and behavioral health services that will be delivered through a web of social service, mental health, religious and cultural organizations throughout the state. The initial focus will be on those sentenced to probation and deemed at risk of returning behind bars.

An analysis has shown that North Dakota prisons house large portions of inmate populations serving time for low-level drug offenses and other non-violent crimes. That's a serious problem. Sending people to prison who aren't hardened, dangerous criminals can actually make them turn to a career in crime. Removed from their families, friends and jobs, inmates find it difficult to reintegrate to become productive members of society. It's also a poor use of a costly resource to fill prisons with low-level, non-violent offenders. Prisons should be reserved for dangerous and predatory criminals.

North Dakota is following a trend among states to invest more on the front end—addiction counseling and other behavioral health services—in order to reduce crime and save money on corrections budgets. A Pew Charitable Trusts study has shown that 30 states have experienced reduced incarceration and crime rates, often resulting from the kind of initiatives that North Dakota is starting.

Free Through Recovery is a bold initiative. It's by no means a guaranteed success. Success will require extensive partnerships and communication between corrections and human services officials, together with law enforcement and criminal justice officials, as well as their partner providers who will be delivering the services. That will mean unprecedented coordination and tracking. For that to happen, local leaders will have to be engaged to ensure that people don't slip through the gaps. That should come naturally in Fargo-Moorhead, where people and organizations are used to working together to solve problems.

For too long, North Dakota has criminalized behavioral health problems. We've learned that it doesn't solve the problem, and in fact often creates problems. For the first time, the state is seriously trying to shut the revolving door to its prisons and jails. We all have a stake, as taxpayers and citizens, in seeing that the effort succeeds.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.