FARGO — It's a question that has baffled our country for years.
Does simply locking people up, and throwing away the key work? What about community programs instead of prison?
A new paper just published in the North Dakota State Bar magazine tackles the complicated issue of prison sentences, repeat offenders and how the state can make a difference with a more coordinated justice system.
Judge Frank Racek, the presiding judge in the East Central Judicial District for North Dakota, has seen all sides of criminal justice in his 31 years in court.
Repeat offenders, he says, are one of the biggest issues.
"In Cass County, we have 5,600 new cases a year and 1,500 that come back as re-opened cases because the individuals are having problems," Racek said.
The judge, along with North Dakota State University criminal justice professor Dr. Andrew Myer and law clerk Santana Royer, just finished a paper that looks at what can be done to better streamline North Dakota's justice system and reduce the number of people getting stuck in a cycle of re-offending.
The poles of thought in criminal justice are not working, the authors say, arguing that both getting hard on crime and getting "smart" or "soft" on crime aren't working.
"Eventually that fails, because unless you can effectively keep the offenders accountable and get them making better decisions, they commit more crimes," Racek said. "And at some point, enough bad things happen that society just says 'we can't take it anymore, now we have to go back toward the other extreme.' "
One answer, the authors of the paper say, is better coordination between all the parties involved in criminal justice. From law enforcement, to the courts, legislature and prisons.
Linking networks and sharing data between government agencies would be a key part of the process. Many agencies have good computer systems, but the technology for prisons might not be connected to the computer sitting near a judge — information he or she needs when making a sentencing decision.
Myer explained that probation officers might also be left in the dark about important information because it was entered in a distant municipality.
According to research Myer has done, the proof is out there. Building more prisons and putting more people in them is not cutting down on crime, even in states like North Dakota where 30,000 new criminal cases are filed each year.
"People need to be punished for violating the law, but there are a lot of things that we can do to punish them," Myer said. "Prison is one of those options, but not always the best option for people."