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North Dakota should stay the course on prison reform

There is nothing magic about being released from prison. When they return to the community, men and women leaving state custody bring with them whatever problems, habits, and mentalities they had behind bars — only enhanced by the stress of trying to rebuild their lives from scratch.

That’s why it’s so important that North Dakota maintain its recent progress toward building safer, more restorative prison environments — places capable of replacing the easily repeated cycle of crime and incarceration with hope and renewal.

Prisons are supposed to be places of correction, but when incarcerated people lack the basics of physical safety, nutrition, or medical services, it’s hard for them to focus on overcoming the issues that got them there in the first place. And problems with the state’s prisons won’t be contained there. Almost 95 percent of state prisoners are released back into American communities — including 1,672 prisoners released in North Dakota in 2017 — which means everyone has a stake in prison culture.

Fortunately, North Dakota has an advocate for restorative prison culture in Department of Corrections Director Leann Bertsch. She has dared to acknowledge when facilities miss the mark, including North Dakota’s only women’s prison. In addition, she has laid out a practical vision for transforming men and women in prison and protecting the communities they will return to. In 2017, the Association of State Correctional Administrators cited her “excellence in developing and implementing successful innovations in corrections.” Prison Fellowship joins the ASCA in applauding Director Bertsch’s strong leadership.

The reforms Director Bertsch calls for, including calling prisoners “residents” and incentivizing good behavior and development of life skills, place human dignity at the center of corrections. And because these reforms aim to help people in prison change their behavior, they are a win for all North Dakotans. Men and women who adopt positive patterns in prison are more likely to continue those patterns in the community, resulting in safer streets and less crime. That’s exactly what we should want from our correctional systems.

By lowering recidivism, these reforms will lead to safer communities at a lower price (incarcerating one person for a year costs North Dakota taxpayers more than $38,000). But this isn’t primarily a financial discussion. Corrections is about people: the returning citizens, who have broken the law but still have inherent value as human beings; the families and communities devastated by the unending cycle of crime and incarceration; and the crime victims whose suffering cannot be calculated in dollars and cents. For all these human reasons, corrections should do what works to help people transform their lives and return as positive contributors to their communities.

Yes, there should be robust public discussion about the best ways to improve correctional outcomes in North Dakota. But the answer will require working together to make changes. That’s why the strong leadership of people like Director Bertsch, defined by her commitment to innovation, excellence, and transformation, is so critical. Commonsense reforms, centered on the value and potential of people behind bars, will lead to less crime, better stewardship of resources, and a safer state for all to enjoy. We should be cheering those efforts on — and partner in them.

Craig DeRoche is senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. Dan Kingery is the senior vice president of field programs at Prison Fellowship.

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