“Every Time There’s A Conduct People Don’t Like We Put A Criminal Penalty On It"


Over at Watchdog today I write about North Dakota’s prison problem, and our state’s top corrections official saying that we’re putting too many people in prison.

“Every time there’s a conduct people don’t like we put a criminal penalty on it,” Department of Corrections director LeAnn Bertsch told me. “A lot of the time people say it’s not going to get charged out or it won’t get used that frequently, but if it’s on the books it’s eventually going to get used.”

Here are the numbers: From 1992 to 2014 North Dakota’s statewide population increased 16 percent, but the prison population increased 234 percent, and there’s no relief in sight. Corrections officials are projecting a 63 percent increase in the prison population by 2025. The count for citizens on parole and/or probation also increased 217 percent during that same period.

That has come at a heavy cost to taxpayers. General fund appropriations to the Department of Corrections were nearly $82 million in 1992, but have now soared over $215 million, a 163 percent increase.

And, perhaps most telling, since 1997 the number of felony crimes on the books has increased 37 percent.

Those are all facts from a recent presentation Bertsch’s agency made to an interim legislative committee (see it below), and it’s worth noting that this isn’t a recent development.

“Overincarceration didn’t start with the oil boom,” Bertsch told me, and certainly if you look at the trendline on the prison population it’s hard to discern where the oil boom did much to change the trajectory:

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Of course, not everyone agrees that overincarceration is an issue. I also interviewed state Senator David Hogue, a Republican from Minot who chairs the interim Judiciary Committee, and he told me that putting more people in jail isn’t necessarily a bad thing:

“I do agree with her that if you criminalize more conduct you will have more convictions and more convictions will lead to more days of incarceration,” he continued, but added this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “That’s one of the core missions of state and local government is to put people who are dangerous into jail. There’s also the component of retribution. We’ve got to find a way to express our outrage over the commission of bad conduct.”

“I’m of the mind that drug distribution and large drug possession is still a good reason to put people in jail,” Hogue said.

Still, Bertsch’s arguments are compelling. She points to a change in the law making assaults on health care workers a felony, pointing out that in the state’s mental hospital it has some unintended consequences. “They wanted what would have been a simple assault increased to a felony penalty,” Bertsch told me. “I can tell you that someone who is mentally ill and can’t control their actions, increasing the penalty isn’t going to help them.”

The whole article is worth a read. This is an issue that should definitely be on the public’s radar.