Journeys Through Justice: Reinvesting from Prisons to Services

Feb 13, 2017

Heidi and Heather

Here's a simple fact. The number of people in North Dakota’s prisons and jails is growing at a faster rate than almost every other state in the country. Many prisoners in North Dakota are serving time for drug related crimes. And many end up back in the system within a year of their release. A year ago legislators and others with a vested interest in fixing the problems began meeting to draft bills for the current legislative session. For guidance they called on Mark Pelka, who’s with the Council on State Government’s Justice Center. Pelka has worked with 25 other states facing the same problems as North Dakota.

MP: North Dakota has experienced substantial growth in the last 10 years and its prison population and with further projections of growth ahead. So from the very beginning the goal was for the state with our assistance to identify ways to bend that curve to avoid contract bad use and identify savings that can be ploughed into strategies to reduce recidivism.

MLL: In other words – take money that would be spent on more prison beds and invest that money in supervised programs in communities. So instead of going to prison, a drug offender might be sentenced to probation with mandatory drug treatment. Because research shows that many drug offenders who go to prison end up back to their old ways soon after getting out.

MP: Many of them at admission to prison have loose contact with all pro-social supports they might have in the community with the job than with housing with family with a positive peer support network. And then when they're inside the walls of a prison they're interacting with people who have more extensive criminal records--have a greater risk--and whatever benefit might be achieved from positive programming behind the walls is probably made worse by the experience of being in prison.

MLL: But here’s the rub. The probation system is already overcrowded. It’s questionable whether placing more, potentially higher-level, drug offenders on probation will stop the cycle of incarceration.

Hi – are you Heidi? I’m Heidi. Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you as well.

MLL: Heidi Arnhalt is a dedicated probation officer with 16 years of experience in North Dakota. She’s also the only probation officer in the Southeastern part of the state. I recently  joined her on her rounds – as she met with offenders in their homes, at work, or in the front seat of her car. After awhile I realized  she spends a lot of time driving.

HA: I have an individual who is in the southeast corner of Richland county. And then I have someone in the northwest corner of ransom county. SO that can be almost two hours of drive time.

MLL: Heidi’s caseload has doubled in the last few years from 40 to now 80 people, which doesn’t give her much time with anyone including offenders at high risk of ending up back in prison.

HA: For the most part I attempt to see my clients once a month. Once a month would be a  maximum case, so your riskier individuals.

MLL: Because her visits are so infrequent she’s taken to texting as a way to keep tabs on her caseload.

HA: And it can be as simple as they … can be to let me know they made a payment, had contact with law enforcement – but at least communicating with me and remembering they need to check in with me.

MLL: Besides the lack of probation officers there’s also a lack of drug addiction counselors. 80 percent of Heidi’s clients are required to be in drug treatment. But there’s only one licensed addiction counselor in the area who accepts Medicaid which most offenders rely on. Fargo offers more treatment options. But that’s not an easy trip for people who work and have families.

Getting to Fargo you know an hour and 15 minutes away are. Two and a half hours away for two to three times a week is pretty much impossible for the majority of the people that I work with. It's just not feasible.

MLL: Heather is one of Heidi’s success stories. She’s currently on parole from prison. She’s working, and she’s determined to stay off drugs and get both her kids back. Because she’s doing so well, she doesn’t need to travel for intensive counseling.  But Heidi asks Heather how challenging it would be if she did.

H: What if treatment had been in Fargo after coming out? I still would have done it. Financially what would it do to you? That might have put a damper on thing. So if you were going to do an hour session in Fargo – a little over an hour? Yeah...2 ½ hours of drive time + one hour of treatme critical to your sobriety – would cost you a half day of work ... would cost you a half day of work ... and would depend on your employer allowing you to do that. Yes.”

MLL: The  shortage of probation officers and drug treatment programs isn’t news to Marc Pelka. Remember, he’s the one advising legislators on how to reduce the size and cost of the state’s prison population.  He says the only way to do that, while also ensuring public safety, is to invest the savings from prison into more probation and drug treatment.

Journeys through Justice is funded in part by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council. For Prairie Public, I’m Meg Luther Lindholm.