The push is on for more behavioral health treatment in North Dakota

Jul 26, 2016

Department of Human Services director of behavioral health, Pam Sagness, testifies before the interim Incarceration Issues Committee.
Credit Dave Thompson / Prairie Public

The director of behavioral health for the state Department of Human Services said alcoholism and drug addictions need to be treated as chronic health conditions.

Pamela Sagness said that underscores the need for community based treatment – to keep these kinds of offenders out of jail.

The interim Incarceration Issues Committee is looking at proposals to help reduce the prison population. And one way being suggested is to have community based treatment available.

Sagness told the Committee some North Dakota treatment programs need to be updated.

"When someone is identified as having a substance abuse issue, they are then sent to treatment, or identified in a bed," Sagness said. "They go to treatment for a fixed amount of time, and then they are discharged and considered to be completed."

And Sagness said someone receiving alcohol treatment, for example, could be kicked out of treatment if that person starts drinking again.

"If I have diabetes and I eat cake, and I see my doctor and my blood sugars aren't good, he doesn't say 'Well, you're done,'" Sagness told the committee.

The interim committee is looking at a proposal to take to the 2017 Legislature, to expand available treatment options – to help keep people out of prison, and to lessen recidivism. It is receiving help from the Council of State Governments.

"It's more of a tune-up," said Katie Mosehauer of the CSG Justice Center. "We're messing with the mechanics more than anything else."

Mosehauer says in North Dakota, a lot of things are working. She credited the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for its policies on probation and supervision.

"What we can really do here in North Dakota is make sure probation and treatment are relied on more heavily than incarceration," Mosehauer said. "And we should strengthen what already exists in supervision to reduce recidivism. Those two things can make a really big difference."

Mosehauer said there is an initial investment for North Dakota – but without that expansion, the prison population will continue to grow. She said in the long run, that will be more costly for North Dakota.