By Patrick Springer
FARGO — Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wants to shift money from incarceration to treatment to better address mental health and addiction problems and curb North Dakota’s growing inmate population.
Outlining the proposal while speaking here on Thursday, May 19, Stenehjem, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said the core of his plan is to address what he calls an acute shortage of licensed treatment professionals to make treatment more available.
Once the treatment shortage is solved, he said, sentencing reform is possible, which would enable the state to curb its “skyrocketing” corrections spending, which increased from $83 million to $178 million during the past decade.
“This is not a trend we can continue,” Stenehjem said. “People are starting to realize we’ve got to start rethinking our approach.”
North Dakota’s arrest rate rose by 26 percent and the violent crime rate has doubled over the past decade. Along with those trends, he said, the county jail population has almost doubled, posting the nation’s third-highest growth in jails.
Also during the past decade, North Dakota’s prison population grew by almost a third, the nation’s fourth-highest growth rate.
Eight of every 10 inmates has an addiction, and a survey found that 70 percent of the state’s judges had sentenced a defendant to prison, where the person would get some treatment, Stenehjem said.
“Our correctional facility is now at full capacity,” with 1,751 inmates as of last year. Often, “They need effective treatment more than they need time in jail,” although Stenehjem said he would continue advocating prison time for dangerous and career criminals as well as drug dealers.
To address the shortage of licensed addiction professionals, Stenehjem proposes offering tuition assistance — or perhaps free tuition — as well as paid internships to help attract people to the field.
Other states, including Texas and Ohio, have taken similar steps to provide treatment instead of incarceration for those who are drug dependent and those states have achieved good results, Stenehjem said. But the problems are stubbornly embedded in society.
“It will take time,” he said, though predicted success will come in the long term. He admitted it would be difficult to come up with a price tag for his proposal.
“It is much more expensive to continue on the trend we’re on now than to address the addiction issues,” he said.
Stenehjem, who faces two rivals in the June 14 GOP primary, made his announcement at First Step Recovery Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center.
Patti Senn, a licensed addiction counselor and clinical director at First Step Recovery Center, said alcohol continues to be the most-abused drug, although heroin and other opioids have been getting much of the attention lately because of the rash of fatal overdoses.
“What we really lack is the continuum of services,” Senn said. One significant gap is the lack of “sober houses” where addicts have a healthy environment to recover. Another gap is the lack of outpatient programs.
“There’s just not enough,” Senn said. “Anywhere west of Fargo it’s a much bigger issue.”
Fortunately, the drug epidemic is getting more public attention, which should lead to better services, she said.
“We’re starting to have this conversation in the community and that’s a hopeful thing,” Senn said.
Stenehjem’s main primary opponent, Fargo businessman Doug Burgum, said Stenehjem was too slow to act on the “skyrocketing” crime and drug abuse problems.
“It’s past time our attorney general begins making these issues a top priority, and as governor I look forward to working with him to address this important statewide crisis,” Burgum said in a statement, adding that he would work with communities and others as well to address the issue.