BISMARCK – North Dakota is increasingly filling its prisons and jails with low-level felony offenders who may be better served by probation and treatment, and drug offenses are the main driver, officials heard Wednesday from researchers helping the state identify ways to reduce spending on corrections and prevent repeat offenses.

Researchers with the Council of State Governments Justice Center analyzed more than 336,000 court records and met with judges, law enforcement agencies, legislators and others as part of the ongoing Justice Reinvestment Initiative that began last fall.

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They found that after several years of decline, felony sentencings in North Dakota roughly doubled between 2011 and 2014, from 1,464 to 2,943, in part because of the population increase associated with the state’s oil boom.

Sentencings for drug offenses were the primary driver, increasing from 474 to 1,175 and accounting for 40 percent of all felony sentencings in 2014, compared with 33 percent nationally.

Four out of five felony sentencings were for Class C felonies, the lowest felony level. Of those, 76 percent resulted in jail or prison time, said Marc Pelka, deputy director of CSG’s state division.

“It’s a large category that struck us,” he told the Incarceration Issues Committee made of lawmakers, corrections officials, judges, state’s attorneys and law enforcement officials.

Those sentenced for Class C felony property and drug offenses tend to not spend a lot of time in prison, Pelka said.

“They are people who are more likely to have higher risk factors including substance use addictions or criminal thinking errors,” he said. “Those are the sorts of issues that if left unaddressed will contribute to their cycling in and out of your criminal justice system.”

Pelka said the researchers will help the 16-member committee develop policy options in August and September with the goal of having legislation ready for the 2017 session.

He said one likely recommendation will be to invest additional resources in behavioral health services, which state officials acknowledge are lacking.

In a survey answered by 62 percent of the state’s district court judges, 70 percent said they had sentenced defendants to prison in order to connect them with mental health or addiction treatment services.

“So this struck us as one of the most expensive ways to deliver treatment, and also one that’s going to expose that person to some of the anti-social qualities to being inside prison,” Pelka said.

In a comparison, the researchers also found that 19 percent of felony sentencings in North Dakota resulted in probation in 2014, which was lower than the national average of 27 percent and lower than most of states that have gone through the reinvestment initiative, including Nebraska, Idaho and Kansas.

Effective probation can help states address behavioral health challenges by focusing resources on people most likely to reoffend, targeting factors that lead to recidivism and removing barriers to treatment or supervision, Pelka said.

Committee member Frank Racek, the presiding judge in the East Central Judicial District, said judges already use tools to assess the risk of recidivism but also have to consider the dangerousness of the crime that’s occurred.

“In our line of work, we sort of have to balance this with the danger, and it becomes sort of a sliding scale because society isn’t interested, doesn’t seem to take much risk if the danger’s great,” he said.