Leann Bertsch has been North Dakota’s director of Corrections since 2005. In this Journeys Through Justice report, she talks about the changes she feels are needed in the state’s criminal justice system.
We are the third fastest growing state in terms of incarceration, which is not a good statistic to have.
This growth is driven largely by people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.
LB: I would say about 75 percent of all of the individuals being incarcerated at the State Penitentiary and our other prisons around the state have a fairly significant drug or alcohol addiction.
Narr: When Bertsch first began as the state’s director of Corrections the national trend was towards stiffer penalties and longer prison terms for drug crimes. But now Bertsch doesn’t think these approaches have worked.
LB: They increase incarceration but at some point when you over incarcerate the return on investment is not there.
Narr: The state’s opiod crisis has also caused a spike in incarceration.
LB: We have parents who are so scared about their loved one overdosing on heroin or prescription drugs or fentanyl that they will beg our probation officers to send people to prison because they think their loved one will be safer locked up versus continuing to use in the community.
Narr: A survey of judges around the state confirmed what Director Bertsch said she had already long suspected - that incarceration is being used as a way to get drug offenders into treatment.
LB: 70 percent of the judges indicated that they have sentenced low risk nonviolent individuals to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation just to access treatment. So oftentimes people with drug addictions are criminalized in order to receive treatment in a correctional facility.
So I really think that jails and prisons have become a default answer to a problem that's very complex but has better solutions than incarceration.
Narr: But treating addiction outside of prison means increasing services that are in very short supply especially in small towns - like addiction counselors –. This doesn’t have to mean spending an arm and a leg Bertsch says. She recommends hiring more peer counselors and expanding the use of teleconferencing. That’s one way offenders in prison connect with counselors.
LB: So we might have behavioral a psychiatric nurse practitioner sitting in Jamestown. But she's actually through the computer providing those behavioral health services to some of our women out in the New England in the women's prison. So we are absolutely providing services across our system from someone that might be 200 miles away. And I think that model could really expand services to our rural areas in a cost effective and efficient manner.
Narr: Bertsch also wants an expansion of Medicaid to help more offenders pay for drug treatment. And more transportation to help offenders travel to treatment programs in the state’s larger cities. She says that funding services to help offenders outside of prison will save the state money in the long run.
LB: Prison is often the most expensive option and research shows community based options to be more effective and less expensive. But right now the community based options are slim.
In the next Journeys Through Justice I’ll talk to Director Bertsch about prison systems that she says work well in other countries.
Journeys through Justice is funded in part by the North Dakota Humanities Council. For Prairie Public, I’m Meg Luther Lindholm.