Let’s treat everybody like people

The state legislative leadership recently announced that they were going to the people to get suggestions for the use of the interest running into the hundreds of millions generated by our $6 billion Legacy Fund.

Thus far, the Legislature has no consensus on the definition of “legacy” so we are not sure where the money ought to go. Consequently, they have been using it to fill the fiscal gap at the end of the legislative session. And that will be modus operandi from here to eternity if we don’t find a definition. Otherwise we will just piddle the money away.

My first suggestion for the legacy search committee is to fund the new state effort to transform the incarceration of convicts into responsible lives. So far, the effort is so underfunded it is going to collapse in the long run without significant long run funding.

As should have been expected, the primary motivation in the Legislature for embarking on this new venture is reducing the prison population to save money. If anything good happens, they’ll take that, too.

Last week, I quoted Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem as saying that beside of thinking about the money, helping restore prisoners to society is “the right thing to do.”

Wade Enget, state’s attorney in Mountrail County, added: “Sometimes you may not hear prosecutors say this, but these are people. These are human beings. And if we want them to be good citizens of our city, our county, our state, then let’s start treating them like human beings.”

A break of compassion in a cloudy sky.

Human beings need jobs; human beings need housing; human beings need families; human beings need self-respect.

North Dakota is ramping up interest and support for teaching and training the coming generation for the electronic age. Workforce experts estimate that 40 percent of U.S. jobs are in markets expected to shrink.

So the curriculum for schools will have to be adapted.

But school kids are not the only ones that will need education for the information age. When we talk about workforce development we need to remember that the prisoners to be released will need to be equipped for those jobs as well.

While we are at it, we should also think of those bright people working in menial jobs who could do much better re-equipped for the information age. Otherwise, they will be left for the unemployment line which, over the long run, is more expensive than training programs.

Gov. Doug Burgum has initiated what he calls an “Emerging Digital Academy” that will provide North Dakotans with the kind of training they need to survive in the rapidly changing economy. This program is workforce development that could be applied to paroled prisoners and the underemployed.

North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Michele Kommer noted that “all work is going to become more technical, regardless of the job we are in. That type of technology will also replace some jobs, necessitating the additional skills and training for people that get displaced.”

Not only are we underfunded for the programs related to the release of prisoners. Actually, the whole effort

to keep up with the world of technology in North Dakota is underfunded and should be given serious consideration for the spending of legacy dollars. Our legacy will be determined by whether or not we keep up with the world.

All of these initiatives have potential for improving the lives of thousands of North Dakotans. In our rush to save money and feed the capitalist machine, however, we should also think of those on the margin who should be brought into the main stream of economic change. A light at the end of their tunnel.

“It’s the right thing to do” and “Let’s start treating them like human beings.”

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