Governor Doug Burgum’s executive budget his ignited several debates over policy and spending across the state.
Perhaps one of the most heated so far is the proposed relocation of the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, a prison facility for female inmates current located in New England, North Dakota.
On one side of the debate is Burgum, and Leann Bertsch, director of The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They argue that the female inmates should be moved to the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck which currently houses men. Those male inmates would be moved to the current state hospital facility in Jamestown. Burgum’s budget provides an appropriation to build a new state hospital facility (also in Jamestown). The point here is to improve efficiency and prison services, particularly for the female inmates who suffer from being isolated in a rural community far from things like health care and the rehabilitative impact of contact with friends and family.
“The main thing is access to services and (being) closer to their family,” Bertsch told reporter James Miller.
On the other side of the debate are parochial interests in New England who bemoan the loss of jobs and commerce for their community. “My reaction is real disappointment,” New England Mayor Marty Opdahl told Miller. “Not just disappointment for New England because it’s obviously really going to negatively impact us, but this is going to impact all of our tax base, who are going to have to pick up some additional expenses.”
Also opposing the move is Rachelle Juntunen, the current warden of the DWCRC in New England, who says Bertsch and Burgum’s argument about logistics and efficiency is bunk.
It’s worth noting that the DWCRC isn’t a state-owned facility. It was “established in 2003, through a contract with the ND Department of Corrections to house female residents for the state of North Dakota,” per the organization’s website.
What Burgum and Bertsch are proposing is ending that contract.
There will be much debate over this issue, but what should not be a part of that debate are any economic considerations. Over the weekend state Senator Erin Oban, a Democrat from Bismarck, said on Twitter that this was about weighing the needs of the inmates versus economic impacts:
[2/2] Clearly an important discussion, but it seems this could/should have been approached earlier than the Gov’s budget address to bring everyone involved to table. Not 1st or last debate we’ll have about needs of DOCR individuals vs economic impact to community. #ndpol #ndleg https://t.co/ewrT97TEFo
— Erin Oban (@ErinOban) December 15, 2018
That’s wrong. While we can perhaps quibble about how Burgum’s administration started this debate – I’ll agree with Oban that surprising people is rarely a good start – the economic impacts shouldn’t matter at all.
This debate needs to be about efficiently accomplishing the mission of the Department of Corrections.
I don’t know yet if that should include the moves Burgum and Bertsch are proposing (though given what the latter has accomplished during her tenure I’m inclined to trust), but I can tell you with certainty that what is not in the mission of the DoC is economic development.