By Malique Rankin
House Bill 1041, signed by Gov. Doug Burgum on Friday, reduces the drug possession charge level from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor for first-time offenders and establishes probation as the presumptive sentence for low-level, nonviolent felonies. It also authorizes a pretrial services pilot project to free up limited and costly jail space and authorizes the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) to award good time on credit for jail time which was previously prohibited.
Senate Bill 2015, the budget for the DOCR signed by Burgum on Thursday, appropriates $7 million from the state’s general fund to improve access to effective, community-based substance abuse treatment and an additional $500,000 to develop a network of treatment providers to serve people in the criminal justice system, which can significantly reduce recidivism and boost public health outcomes.
“Building new jails and incarcerating those with the chronic disease of addiction and in desperate need of help is the most expensive and least effective course of action,” Burgum said. “With this legislation, we can give those dealing with substance abuse and other behavioral health issues who become entangled in the legal system an opportunity to recover successfully re-enter their communities.”
Together with HB 1041, SB 2015 also prioritizes prison space for people convicted of serious and violent offenses and aims to reduce the number of people in prison who have committed lower-level felony offenses and violated the conditions of their supervision. “By putting into place measures that begin to address our crowded prisons and expanding our ability to help those with behavioral health and substance use needs, we improve public safety,” DOCR Director Leann Bertsch said. “This is just the first step in addressing the issues facing our criminal justice system.”
House Bill 1269, also signed Friday, reduces the minimum mandatory penalties for offenses involving a controlled substance or analog, giving the courts broader sentencing discretion that can result in more meaningful and cost-effective sentencing.
“When making sentencing decisions as authorized by statute, judges strive to make choices that protect public safety and reduce the chance of someone winding up in our courtroom again,” Chief Justice Gerald W. VandeWalle said. “To do that, however, the right tools and resources need to be put into place so that our orders can be effectively followed.”
The legislation will allow for the creation of a structured system of care delivery, providing access to treatment options for people on probation or parole to lessen the likelihood of reoffending. Treatment providers will be regularly monitored in order to gauge results, so that adjustments can be made as needed.
North Dakota’s bipartisan Incarceration Issues Committee began working with the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in January 2016 to use a data-driven justice reinvestment approach to address the state’s prison population growth and rising system costs. After increasing 32 percent between 2005 and 2015, North Dakota’s prison population was projected to grow by 36 percent by 2022 if no action was taken.
“By partnering with the CSG Justice Center, we have been able to develop solutions that directly address the causes of recidivism in a more cost-effective manner,” Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said. “We have taken strategies that have been proven to deliver results throughout the country and tailored them to fit the needs of North Dakota.”
The CSG Justice Center will continue working with North Dakota in the coming months to provide technical assistance with the implementation of HB 1041 and SB 2015. The justice reinvestment process was initiated in October 2015, when leaders from all three branches of government requested intensive technical assistance from the CSG Justice Center with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Twenty-six states have successfully used the justice reinvestment approach to date with the Justice Center’s assistance.