Is Wayne Stenehjem Willing To Take On The Whole Problem With Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

wayne stenehjem

So far the NDGOP’s gubernatorial nomination race (which will likely pick North Dakota’s next governor given the near total abdication of relevance by the Democrats) has been long on ideological rhetoric and somewhat short on policy specifics.

But Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem just brought up a very substantive issue on the campaign trail. Namely, prison overcrowding.

“We cannot continue an unsustained growth in the number of people in our prisons without addressing recidivism, and we can only do that if we address addiction and mental illness,” Stenehjem said yesterday. “Because a lot of the people who are coming back into our jails have those issues and we know we have to address them and that’s the way looking long term that we can reduce our recidivism and reduce those appropriations for corrections.”

This isn’t a sexy political issue. It’s probably not something most voters would put very high on their list of priorities. But it is a hugely consequential issue, because the state has a looming problem with an exploding prison population.

I actually wrote about this last February, interviewing LeAnn Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections, who pointed out some ugly statistics.

While the state’s population between 1992 and 2014 increased 16 percent, the state’s prison population increased 234 percent. 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. Corrections officials are projecting a 63 percent increase in the prison population by 2025.

That’s not necessarily an oil boom trend. “Overincarceration didn’t start with the oil boom,” Bertsch told me.

Here’s a chart from a DOC presentation to the Legislature:


That’s not a good situation.

But are drug addiction and mental illness the drivers of the problem as Stenehjem suggests?

They’re certainly part of the problem, but only a part. Bertsch told me that we’re using prisons as a place to put people with those problems.

“There is a place for prison in our society, but it is for the most dangerous persons,” she said. “We think it’s OK to push people into the Department of Corrections to get their mental health treatment or addiction counseling. You shouldn’t have those low-risk type of people mixing in with the real criminals of society.”

But Bertsch also pointed out that we’re simply putting too many laws on the books.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“Every time there’s a conduct people don’t like we put a criminal penalty on it,” Bertsch said. “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.”[/mks_pullquote]

“Every time there’s a conduct people don’t like we put a criminal penalty on it,” Bertsch said. “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.”

One example Bertsch cited was an increase in the penalty for assaulting workers at the State Hospital in Jamestown, which serves people with severe psychiatric and/or addiction problems.

“They wanted what would have been a simple assault increased to a felony penalty,” Bertsch said. “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.”

“Let’s make it a misdemeanor if someone who isn’t an optometrist prescribes glasses,” she added. “There’s so many on the books I can’t even talk about them all.”

Bertsch also said we need to take a look at our drug laws. “At least do away with all the mandatory minimums for the drug cases,” she said. “Those really have some draconian results that push people into prison for many, many years that don’t need to be there that long.”

The state could also make it easier for offenders to succeed once they’re released from prison. “Reduce the overburden and financial obligations,” she said. “If you’ve ever seen someone go through a court hearing, they may be indigent and have indigent counsel, but they come out with thousands of dollars in fines.”

I would add that we could maybe think of decriminalizing marijuana, too. With petitioners circulating a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana use we’ll be having that debate in earnest later this year I think.

Stenehjem is clearly interested in this issue, but is he interested enough to go beyond areas of low hanging fruit like addiction and mental illness into taking on drug law and sentencing reforms?

I’m not so sure. Stenehjem is something of a drug warrior. But I’d certainly like to hear more from him on this topic.