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Amid rising population, jail considers expansion, policy

Grand Forks County Correctional Center Administrator Bret Burkholder. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Recent changes to state law have put more a burden on local jails to house inmates, according to Grand Forks County Correctional Center Administrator Bret Burkholder, who petitioned for a study on the future of incarceration in the county.

On Aug. 1, Grand Forks County commissioners gave the go ahead to proceed with a $49,200 jail needs assessment study, which will explore whether the jail needs to expand and if policies regarding which crimes require incarceration should be re-evaluated.

The study, prompted by years of rising jail populations in Grand Forks, is being conducted by Icon Architectural Group, which partners with HDR, a consulting firm with expertise in planning, including for criminal justice systems.

Grand Forks is hardly alone. Across North Dakota, jails are expected to add more than 886 beds through expansions and completion of new jail projects in 2017, according to the North Dakota Association of Counties.

Changes to state law

Gov. Doug Burgum signed several new laws after the 2017 legislative session to reform the criminal justice system. While those changes excited some criminal justice advocates, there are changes that have county sheriffs and jail administrators concerned their facilities will fill up fast.

"There's a couple factors that kind of scare me," Burkholder said.

For one, the North Dakota Department of Corrections now has the ability to shut its doors, effectively putting on a no vacancy light at the prison and forcing county jails to hold inmates until a spot opens. A law passed by the Legislature allows the DOC to not accept new inmates for up to 30 days at a time. Those sentenced to prison, meaning their sentence calls for more than a year of incarceration, will be assigned a 1-10 priority ranking. A 1 ranking is reserved for those convicted of a Class AA felony, lower rankings are based on the level of offense, criminal history and other factors.

"So by virtue of having someone sentenced to the pen, there's no guarantee they will ever go," Burkholder said. "So it's possible we could have people here sentenced to the pen and serve most of their time locally."

If, for example, Grand Forks has 10 people waiting in the queue, and all were ranked as 5s in the prioritization system, there's a chance they never go to the state penitentiary, Burkholder said, depending on the ranking of other penitentiary-bound inmates from other jurisdictions.

The state DOC has a capacity for 1,624 men and 224 women, according to director of administration Dave Krabbenhoft. In July the DOC had an average daily population of 1,603 men and 224 women.

"We've always been right up against it for the last couple years," he said of reaching capacity.

Although the DOC has yet to reach the point where it has to tell counties to hold their prisoners until space clears out, Krabbenhoft said it's likely they reach that point in the next couple of months.

Changes to laws reducing first-time drug possession for substances other than marijuana from Class C felonies to misdemeanors also makes it so those convicted serve their sentences in county jails, not state facilities.

These changes to the law did not include additional funding for local governments, which bear the costs of incarceration.

Increase in inmates, exploring alternatives

The Grand Forks County Correctional Center is averaging 204 inmates per day in 2017, Burkholder said. In 2016, average daily population was 198, up from 191 in 2015.

Populations at the jail tend to rise on the weekend, when people arrested on suspicion of felony offenses must wait to see a judge to set bail and others in the process of serving time for minor offenses check in to sit in jail for the weekend.

Last weekend, 18 people were serving portions of their sentences at the Grand Forks jail. Examining such practices is part of the coming study.

"The question has to be asked if they're good to be out in the community Monday through Friday, what purpose does it serve to have those people come in Friday night only to be let out Monday morning to go back to work?" Burkholder said.

Alternatives such as house arrest will be considered in the study, he said.

The facility has 242 beds, but functions best with 200 inmates or less, according to Burkholder. Recently jail held more than 250 inmates.

Law requires inmates to be separated by gender, and the jail tries to separate people incarcerated for similar offenses or who were arrested together.

Traill County is currently remodeling its facility, so its detainees have been housed in Grand Forks currently. Walsh County's female inmates are also housed in Grand Forks because there are not enough female corrections officers in Grafton to guard women inmates 24-7.

The jail is also averaging about 40 federal inmates a day from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshal's Office, a major revenue source for the facility.

Burkholder sees the study as a chance for the community to consider what it wants out of its jail, but said time will be needed to examine the impact of new laws.

"We have to be careful about how fast we do this so that we don't miss the results of the new changes, otherwise our assessment can be way off," he said.

A 18-month window for the first phase of the study is likely. Phase one will help local officials decide what is necessary and give estimates to the costs of potential changes to the system.

Part of the process will be making sure the community understands what decisions are being made and what is being prioritized.

"At some point we as a community, we might decide rather than putting X-million dollars into this facility, we might cite and release these people," Burkholder said.

In neighboring Minnesota, law enforcement does not typically book people into jail for offenses such as underage drinking or misdemeanor marijuana possession.

The department of corrections is near capacity, Burkholder said, but has not yet reached the point of filling up. For now, administrators of county jails are waiting to see what that would look like. But rising population numbers over the years are impossible to ignore, Burkholder said, and the community must decide how to address the situation.

"You don't get many opportunities to make change, so I think it's really important that we gather all the facts, look at all the options, educate everybody in the community about what's going on to get a decision that we as a community can support," Burkholder said.