From The Left: Does North Dakota Need Sentencing Reform?


This week, Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in North Dakota, announced she will ask the Legislature to adopt a county-by-county allocation at state prison facilities using a formula based on the population of each county. The problem, according to Bertsch, is some counties are using the state prison system to house prisoners that could otherwise be held in county jails. Sentencing inmates to state prison rather than county jails shifts the cost of confinement from the county to the state.

One of the biggest offenders of this practice is Burleigh County.  Corrections data shows that 268 people from the county were sentenced to the state prison system from Burleigh County in 2013. To put this into perspective, Cass County, which has twice the population, sent less than half that number of inmates to the state prison.

I think it is time to begin to investigate why Burleigh County is sending so many people to the state prison. If you believe Bertcsh and accept the fact that Burleigh County is doing it for financial reasons, shame on them! Making prisoners out of jail inmates in order to save money is not only unethical for financial reasons, but also inhuman and unjust punishment. Prison is supposed to be designed for the worst of the worst criminals, and serves more as a tool of punishment than local County jails.  If you accept and can prove what Bertcsh is alleging as true, many public officials should be removed from office.

However, South Central District Judge Gail Hagerty, who is based in Bismarck, has seen no proof of Burleigh County incorrectly turning jail inmates into prisoners.  If you accept that, you must look for other reasons as to why people who live around the capital city are so likely to go to prison.

Why are people in Burleigh County more likely to be sent to prison? I think we can all agree that people who live in Burleigh County are not, by nature more than four times as likely to commit serious crimes as people in Cass County.  I think we have to look into the demographics of both counties and try to find out why there is such a discrepancy between the two. Both have about the same percentage of males living in them. Both counties are about 91% white.

However, Burleigh County has about 4 times as many American Indians as Cass County. Bismarck, in addition to being the capital city, is home to the United Tribes Technical College and is strategically located between the Standing Rock and Fort Berthold Indian Reservations. It is safe to say that even if Native Americans only make up a small percentage of the county population, at any given time, a large number of Native Americans are in the County.

Across the state of North Dakota, Native Americans make up only about 5% of the population, but over 20% of the prison population.

I cannot find specific information on the demographic breakdown of the Burleigh county prisoners, however, if Native Americans are more likely to live in or visit Burleigh county, and if people from Burleigh county are more likely to be imprisoned, then it may be fair to suspect that Native Americans are more likely to be imprisoned in the County.

I think it is time we take a look at the sentencing habits of North Dakota judges, especially those in counties that send large numbers of people to the state prisons, and ensure that minorities are not being faced with harsher sentences.