Every minute of a two-hour meeting Wednesday on the energy industry's impact on North Dakota's justice system was used as those on the front lines gave testimony about how difficult it has become to do more work with less resources.
Minot was the fourth and final stop for the State Bar Association of North Dakota Justice System Energy Impact Task Force. Meetings had already been held in Bismarck, Dickinson and Williston.
The task force has over a dozen members, but the members on hand in Minot were Charles DeMakis, a Minot attorney and member of the state bar association board of governors; Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney, member of the state bar association board of governors and chair of the task force; Robin Huseby, Valley City, executive director of the N.D. Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents; Dennis Johnson, Watford City, McKenzie County State's Attorney; and Carolyn Probst, Minot, trial court administrator for the Northwest Judicial District.
McDonald said the object of the meetings was to gather facts and statistics about how the oil boom in northwest North Dakota is affecting the state's justice system. From there, a report will be prepared and made available to the state Legislature to help it make difficult budget decisions.
Bob Martin, an attorney with the North Dakota Public Defender's Office, was the first to offer testimony. Martin said he's supposed to be the supervising attorney in Minot, but over the last two months he had agreed to go to Williston two days a week, and that has now turned into three days a week.
"In the last three work days I've had nine hours of windshield time, just in the last three days," Martin said. "In Divide, McKenzie and Williams counties, the felony caseloads are up 52 percent, misdemeanors are up 41 percent. The overall rise in the last two years is only 33.2 percent."
Martin said the cases are getting more difficult and more violent. He noted he has four AA gross sexual imposition cases right now in Williston.
"The sociological impact of having all of these single men hoard into this town has resulted in a massive amount of GSIs with younger girls," Martin said. "I have one case with a 12-year-old girl, one with a 10-year-old girl."
Martin said the Williams County Commission has basically given the sheriff there an open checkbook to hire as many people as needed, but other areas of the justice system are hurting and need more people, as well.
"I'm starting to feel a lot like that last little pat of butter at breakfast, and you try to scrape it over the toast and it doesn't quite reach the edge of the bread. That's kind of where I'm at right now," Martin said. "We're coping, but it's not a long-term solution. We're a Band-Aid right now, and we need people. I know the governor's calling for a 3 percent cut across the board for state agencies. I don't see how we can reconcile that now."
Judge Gary Lee, a district judge in Minot, said from the court's point of view, they are in need of additional judicial resources in the area. Lee is a member of a committee making a caseload study which should be done by the end of the month. Lee said that study will show they are short a significant number of judges across the state, and at least two in the Northwest Judicial District, which includes Minot and Williston.
Lee said if every judge in the state took the same number of cases, it would average out to about 1,600 cases per judge per year. He said in Minot they're not doing too badly at 1,800 cases per judge, but the Northwest Judicial District as a whole is far beyond that average.
"Out in Williston, they're at over 3,200 cases per judge in that area," Lee said.
"They're almost twice as many cases per judge, as on average, statewide," he added. "So that shows the impact that this is having."
Several of the task force members offered their own testimony, including Dennis Johnson. He said this is the third oil boom he's been through, and while the other two eventually led to busts, this one has a different feel, and he thinks it's here to stay. That means the problems the justice system faces today aren't going away anytime soon.
Johnson said while most of the people coming to North Dakota to work and live are law-abiding citizens, a distinct group of people arriving in the state remind him of the song "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves."
"There are two groups that are causing the crisis in the judicial system in the communities in western North Dakota. Those that come here because of the opportunity to make a lot of money in a short period of time and then get out. We refer to them as carpetbaggers," Johnson said. "The other group are those people who have lost everything where they were, and they have nothing to lose so they come here. And those people, unfortunately, have brought a lot of their problems with them."
Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski, who was the last to offer testimony, agreed with everything everyone said, noting the increase in people in northwest North Dakota was in turn increasing workloads for all areas of the justice system.
"It just affects every single element of the criminal justice system," Kukowski said.
He said the Ward County Jail was originally designed to house 58 inmates, and it has now been forced to hold 104.
"We double bunk, we now have room for 104. On the weekends I run 106 to 110, and Monday morning I get down to 99," Kukowski said. "So I think today I'm down to 88 and we've been trying to purge them."
He noted they average an escort and a half per day to move prisoners all over the state, and while the Ward County Sheriff's Department has a great working relationship with other law enforcement agencies and they often meet each other halfway, it's only getting more difficult as time goes on.
It was noted in the beginning of the meeting that a bright light has often been aimed at the infrastructure needs in northwest North Dakota, highways in particular. What many said during their testimony was that the human infrastructure needed to keep the justice system going has greatly deteriorated, and if something isn't done soon, it will only get worse.
"We're running out of gas," Kukowski said. "We just don't have the gas to make the wheels go anymore."