Legislative interim committees approve bills for justice reinvestment

Sep 20, 2016

Members of the Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration and the interim Incarceration Issues Committee meet in Bismarck.
Credit Dave Thompson / Prairie Public

Two Legislative interim committees have approved bill drafts designed to help curb the growth in the state’s prison population.

The bills would reduce penalties for drug addicts, allowing them to be sent to treatment facilities – and to be put out on probation faster. Supporters say the goal is to cut the amount of prisoners being sent to other facilities – and using that saved money for local addiction programs.

"These are baby steps, but it's a start," said Sen. Ron Carlisle (R-Bismarck), the chairman of both the Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration and the Incarceration Issues Committee.

The two panels met for 10 hours Monday. going through the bill draft and making changes.

"This is good, old-fashioned North Dakota sausage-making," Carlisle said. "In the end, we have some semblance of a product. I'm happy with that."

Some proposals advocated by state Corrections Director LeAnn Bertsch – such as reducing the charge for a first time drug offender from a misdemeanor to an infraction, eliminating mandatory sentencing and reducing the minimum time someone convicted of a crime has to spend behind bars —were rejected by the committee. But Bertsch said she’s glad the two bills will get a hearing in the next Legislature.

"The bills have some good things in them, but there are things I wish were in them," Bertsch said. "It's a work in progress."

If the full Legislative Council approved them, they will be introduced in the 2017 Legislature. At least one could be assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

"We need to be balanced," said Judiciary Committee chairman rep. Kim Koppelman (R-West Fargo). "The pendulum needs to find a sensible middle ground."