Legislative Discussion Over Sentencing Reform Gets Heated


There is a big gap between where LeAnn Bertsch and the state’s prosecutors are on sentencing reform for non-violent drug offenders.

Bertsch, who is the director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections, wants to reduce penalties for drug crimes and get rid of mandatory minimum sentences. The prosecutors, meanwhile, are resistant to that change. During a meeting of the Legislature’s Incarceration Issues Committee things between Bertsch and the prosecutors got a little…testy.

Ward County State’s Attorney Roza Larson raised concerns that the new plan would shift significant responsibility to the counties, who often manage people on unsupervised probation, because staff would have to keep track of a larger number of people.

The heated discussion over sentencing began when Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director LeAnn Bertsch made her own proposals to get rid of mandatory minimum penalties for selling drugs, repeal laws that dictate inmates have to serve 85 percent of their sentence before seeing a parole board, shrink the size of drug-free school zones and reduce penalties for ingesting drugs.

“It really becomes about the pound of flesh sometimes,” Bertsch said, adding that mandatory minimum penalties disproportionately affect minorities.

The suggestions were not taken well by law enforcement on the committee.

“That is a blanket accusation of prosecutors across the state and I disagree with you wholeheartedly,” Larson said of Bertsch’s comment about disproportionate impact.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem argued that reducing penalties or decriminalizing drug ingestion takes out an important mechanism for the court to get involved in helping an addict get treatment.

“There’s better ways to address that,” Bertsch countered. “It’s one step further to stigmatizing addiction.”

This reform has become something of a crusade for Bertsch who is trying to grapple with prison crowding issues across the state:

“We think it’s OK to push people into the Department of Corrections to get their mental health treatment or addiction counseling,” she told me last February. “You shouldn’t have those low-risk type of people mixing in with the real criminals of society.”

I tend to agree with her, particularly in light of ridiculous statistics like this one tweeted by Senator Tyler Axness (D-West Fargo), a member of the Incarceration Issues Committee:

Another grim data point: Despite the aforementioned prison overcrowding issues, North Dakota’s judges deviated from mandatory minimum sentences zero times in the last reported year.

Clearly, reform is needed, and the state’s prosecutors ought to stop resisting.

We need to give judges more flexibility in sentencing instead of saddling them with mandates.

We need to stop using judges and the courts as de facto social workers to address “crimes” that are often just addiction issues.

Doing these things will take a lot of burden off our jails. There should be caution in making changes – a rebuttal to these arguments which is not totally without merit is that North Dakota’s low crime rate has a lot to do with our current policies – but I think we can balance the desire for public safety with a better approach to crimes which have their roots in addiction issues.