BISMARCK – North Dakota faces a "staggering" increase in its prison population if current trends continue, with the inmate count projected to jump by more than 67 percent in the next decade, corrections officials said this week as a committee began exploring how to stem the tide.
"It seems like every day is a new record at the Department of Corrections, and not in a good way," said Tom Erhardt, deputy director of transitional planning services.
The department counted 1,783 inmates last week, a number that's more than triple the 578 inmates at the start of 1995, and is projected to climb to 2,985 by the year 2025, Erhardt said.
The number of offenders on supervised release through parole, probation or interstate compact also has more than tripled since 1995, to 7,091 as of Thursday.
Department Director Leann Bertsch attributed the increases to several factors, including mandatory minimum sentences, limited community resources, ineffective treatment services, a 37 percent increase in felony laws since 1997 and a "culture of criminalization."
"We have continued to increase penalties. We have continued to punish more conduct. And frankly, punishing more conduct isn't actually deterring that conduct," she told the Legislature's interim Incarceration Issues Committee on Monday.
The committee, which consists of six state legislators and 10 citizen members including judges and corrections officials, has been tasked with studying pretrial services, sentencing alternatives, treatment options and other issues that may help reduce the prison population.
Bertsch, who serves on the committee, said the state continues to see the criminalization of mentally ill offenders. For example, she noted it's now a felony if someone who is actively schizophrenic and can't control their behavior assaults an emergency room worker.
"We are the default provider of behavioral health services in the state, and some of those laws that you have passed actually contribute to that," she said.
A national consultant concluded in a report during the 2013-14 interim that North Dakota's mental health and substance abuse system is in crisis, but Bertsch said "very little was done" this past legislative session to address it.
Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, questioned whether stricter laws or more crime associated with population growth driven largely by the state's oil boom is expanding the prison population. He said more study is needed on the effectiveness of treatment.
"I think, frankly, we need to evaluate that before we just start plowing people into treatment somewhere because it sounds good and we think that's the answer," he said.
Bertsch agreed that more research-informed decision making is needed.
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said that as a lawmaker, it's difficult to look into a victim's eyes and tell them the Legislature can't raise penalties or do anything about it.
"How do we find that balance, where there is justice and we still address the issues we're trying to address with this committee?" he said.
Bertsch said the state should be locking up dangerous criminals and looking at other ways to modify the behavior of those who don't pose a threat to public safety, adding that taxpayers are paying "a very high price" to have them imprisoned.
Legislative appropriations to DOCR have more than doubled in the past decade, from $100 million in the 2005-07 biennium to more than $215 million for the current two-year cycle that began July 1. That includes funding for 22 new full-time positions, bringing the department's total to 836, according to a Legislative Council memo.
Bertsch presented the committee with a more than dozen recommendations to consider. Click here to see the presentation.