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This series of reports looks at the criminal justice system, in particular the way that people with mental health and addiction problems end up in jail. A discussion is currently under way — is this best for the people affected? Is it an inefficient use of public funds? What are the alternatives?Journeys Through Justice is produced by Meg Luther Lindholm, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of the North Dakota Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Journeys Through Justice: Addiction, Legislation and the ND Legislature

A conversation about Addiction and Incarceration with North Dakota Senator Judy Lee and Representative Kathy Hogan.

Figuring out how to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons is high on the agenda for many state legislators. Meg Luther Lindholm recently discussed the twin problems of drug addiction and incarceration with two legislators (a Republican and a Democrat) in this Journeys Through Justice report.

Meg: You probably know that drug addiction has been a growing problem in North Dakota. Meth has made a steady comeback in the last few years. And the most recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control shows that the state ranks first in the nation for self-identified binge drinkers. And opioid addiction has skyrocketed. All together these different substances are taking a toll on human lives and in the number of people serving time in the state’s prisons and jails.

JL: Every place in the state rural areas have just as big an issue with this as the cities do….So there isn't a county that hasn't got a problem with this.

Meg: That’s senator Judy Lee who chairs the senate’s human services committee. She is working to reduce the twin problems of drug addiction and incarceration with legislators on both sides of the aisle – like Representative Kathy Hogan who has been working on issues of addiction for years. She says opioid addiction grew in part from a question about pain that doctors now routinely ask their patients.

KH: And now if you go to the doctor they'll ask you What's your rate of pain even if you're not talking about a pain issue and adding that consciousness raised everyone's first expectation that we will never have pain and we're always going to have pain. And secondly it forces the doctor if there is pain to do something.

Meg: Which in many cases is a good thing says Senator Judy Lee.

JL: Pain management medications are a wonderful thing if you have bone cancer you want that oxycontin. I want you to have it I want it. Yeah.  You know in fact today my knee hurts, I want it.

KH: But when that became a vital sign that's a part of that's that that was part of the changing of the culture. Absolutely.

Meg: Everybody expecting that oh I can get medication to relieve this. Yeah. because now there were drugs that could do it.

JL: Exactly. You know it wasn't if everybody were good we wouldn't have this problem. It doesn't matter what the issue is or somebody was going to game the system one way or another. [14.1]

KH: Well an addiction is a disease. Once you're hooked it's so hard to get off it. Understand that it's not a choice. It's really out of your control and having enough treatment and support services which we don't have at this point. Makes a difference.

Meg: This shortage of treatment services has led to a spike in incarceration, and Senator Lee says this growing number of inmates if causing a huge strain on the corrections system.  

JL: If every county jail and the penitentiary complete the additions to their facilities that they have either already started or have planned will be increasing the number of beds by 48 percent. That's a really big number.

Meg: And there are some other really big numbers, like the 40 thousand dollar price tag per prisoner per year. And The 64 million dollar price tag for the newly expanded state prison in Bismarck that is already full. And the fact that North Dakota’s rate of incarceration is one of the fastest growing in the country. Hogan says these numbers have elicited a bi-partisan response.    

KH: The behavioral health crisis is recognized in both houses and by both parties pretty unanimously as a crisis in North Dakota. They've been touched by their family members by their local stakeholders. We have a crisis and we own it. I think we will find joint solutions. Many of them that won't cost significant dollars.

Meg: Dollars that can go towards treating offenders in their communities rather than in prison.

KH: So that they could get daily treatment they could get housing support they could get assistance with jobs and they would be held accountable. It could include 24 7 monitoring and very intense intervention to prevent jail and incarceration. And what we know is that this is cheaper it's more humane and in the long run it will work.

Meg: Other ideas include expanding a voucher program to help low income offenders pay for treatment. And expanding telehealth which allows people to connect with counselors on their tablets or phones -  which Senator Lee says has its advantages -

JL: So,if I can sit at home in my pajamas at my kitchen table with my iPhone I feel like I'm having a private conversation about the challenges I'm facing. So we're hopeful it's going to be one to one tool in our toolbox.

Meg: Senator Lee says there’s room for more ideas at the legislative table -

JL: And the citizens should be talking to their legislators about their concerns in this too. So they know that the public supports these kinds of efforts too.

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

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