North Dakota’s Top Corrections Officer: “I’m Not a Liberal. I’m Just Practical.”


Criminal justice and prison reform was a big part of the legislative session earlier this year, but not everyone may understand just how much change is taking place in our state when it comes to this particular area of public policy.

A sea change in philosophy has taken place when it comes to how we treat incarcerated citizens in our state thanks to state Department of Corrections chief Leann Bertsch who was inspired by prison policies she observed in Norway.

Her efforts toward reform are profiled by Mother Jones in that publication’s July/August edition.

It’s worth your time to read.

A SAB reader sent me a link to the article while I was out on vacation. “How did I not know this was going on?” he asked me.

That’s probably a question a lot of people are asking themselves right now.  Here’s an excerpt from the article about the outcomes from changes to how solitary confinement is used to discipline prisoners:

The day-to-day population of the [segregation] unit is now less than one-third of its pre-Norway peak. Since the new policies were put in place, prison officials report sharp declines in inmate violence and threats against staff, and also in the use of force by staff against inmates. “When the environment feels less aggressive and contentious,” Jackson says, “you’re safer.”

That sounds like a win to me. The guards are safer. The prisoners are safer. What’s wrong with that?

How has Bertsch pushed through what many Republicans no doubt see as namby-pamby, bleeding heart prison reforms in this Republican dominated state? She’s touted for state lawmakers the costs of the lock-’em-up mentality. “The most I can do with the Legislature,” Bertsch is quoted as saying in the article, “is get them to understand that incarcerating more people is not a good investment. If we had the same incarceration rate as Norway, we would have the resources to do a really good job with the people in our system.”

“I’m not a liberal,” she adds. “I’m just practical.”

In other words, ideology is taking a back seat to an objective consideration of policies that just work.

Putting people in jail costs a lot of money. If we can put fewer people in jail, or shorten the amount of time they stay in jail, while maintaining the standards we want for public safety that’s a goal worth achieving.

Read the whole thing.