North Dakota May Hold Key to Wyoming’s Prison Woes


By Andrew Graham

BISMARCK, North Dakota — Wyoming and North Dakota do not share a border but do share some definitive traits — wide open spaces, a largely rural population, energy booms and busts and staunch Republican control of state government.

Until recently, they also shared a problem with prison growth. Wyoming’s prison beds are maxed out. The state is paying to send inmates to privately run prisons out of state and to house them in county jails.

North Dakota has been there. Its prison growth was relatively flat for years. Then a host of new felonies were written into state law in the 1990s. The Bakken oil boom followed, bringing a rise in crime that drove the numbers of incarcerated people way up, according to Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

A few years ago, North Dakota’s prison population was growing faster than nearly every other state in the country, according to research by the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, a group currently studying Wyoming’s justice system. The state population grew by 18 percent during the Bakken boom, which is generally considered to have begun in 2006 and lasted until 2014, Bertsch said. The prison population grew by 250 percent during the same period.

Wyoming hasn’t seen that kind of population growth but it has seen a similar spike in imprisonment. In 1980, one out of every 878 residents was incarcerated, according to Wyoming Department of Corrections data. By 2016, it was one out of every 244.

But while Wyoming’s justice system remains in crisis, North Dakota is righting the ship. In just over one year, from February 2017 until August 2018, the state cut its prison population by 123 inmates, according to CSG. Prison releases now exceed prison admissions.


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