A prison experiment unlike anything in U.S.

“North Dakota is conducting a prison experiment unlike anything else in the United States.”

So says Governing Magazine, a nationwide publication for state and local government officials, in a four-page interview by David Kidd with North Dakota legislative committees and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The concern of policymakers has been growing along with the mushrooming numbers of inmates logging in to the state prisons.

For many of them, their fear of growing costs has been the driving force for reform. Other policymakers have concluded that doing the same thing year after year has not curbed the rising tide of prisoners.

Incarceration is outrunning state population. Since 1992, the state population has increased around 20 percent but the number of inmates has gone up 250 percent.

The Department estimates that it costs around $45,000 a year to house a male inmate. In addition, the cost of medical care is eating a larger and larger hole in the budget.

While trying to find some sort of consensus on reform, it was a trip to Norway by Department Director Leann Bertsch that broke through the inertia.

She found that the recidivism rate in Norway was considerably less than that in North Dakota – or most other states. In addition, Norway demonstrated a strong interest in bringing social normalization to their prisons.

In North Dakota, we have not leaned on rehabilitation as heavily as punishment, deterrence and safety of society. So we locked up every wrongdoer, guaranteeing a rebellious attitude upon release.

The last session of the Legislature appropriated $7 million for the reform program.

Aaron Birst, executive director of the ND State’s Attorney’s Association, expressed some concerns over the program but noted that most prosecutors were on board.

He noted, however, that a $7 million set aside for community behavioral health is not much at all. He was kind. It is a drop in the buck in a departmental budget of $260 million.

State Senator Judy Lee, in a newspaper opinion piece, summarized the program best:

“If we can get people into effective treatment programs, help them after being discharged from jail or prison to re-enter the community with housing and jobs and support their sobriety, not only will they be less likely to offend again, but also the cost will be considerably less for state taxpayers.”

That is a big order. Seven million will not go far but it will be a start. That being said, attitudinal change is long term. (Try it sometime.) There is no quick and cheap solution. And long term in a democracy only lasts until the next election.

After decades of prison policy based on punishment and deterrence, the rehab and rebuild approach will have detractors. Their opposition will be vociferous but fiscal realities will speak louder.

Now let’s talk about the most serious threat.

Remember Willie Horton, the guy who was released early by Gov. Mike Dukakis in 1988 and murdered someone. It sunk Mike’s campaign for president.

Among the more current cases, in 2009 Governor Mike Huckabee commuted the sentence of Maurice Clemmons who killed four police officers.

In 2010 the Massachusetts Parole Board released Dominic Cinelli who had been given three life sentences.

He was robbing Kohl’s in Boston and ended up killing a policeman.

It is unlikely that career felons will ever get through the North Dakota program but as soon as one graduate crosses a red line, public opinion will be inflamed. The state is still a tinder box for punishment, safety of society and deterrence.

A patient citizenry may be necessary down the road.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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