A report released last week provides a blueprint to cut North Dakota’s prison populations in half while simultaneously saving $125 million of taxpayer money. The state chapter of American Civil Liberties Union put out the report to highlight ways to move away from mass incarceration and look toward community-based solutions that incorporate rehabilitation.

“I do think that is one of those things where when you first hear it and maybe seems like a bit of a jolt or a shock,” said Dane DeKrey, the North Dakota ACLU director of advocacy. “But when you look at what is actually behind it, I think that these are more common sense reforms that you just end up at a large number like that before you really realize.”

The Blueprint for Smart Justice report is a product of a partnership between the ACLU and the nonprofit research organization Urban Institute. The two-year research collaboration analyzed drivers of incarceration, racial disparities and the impacts reducing admission and cutting the prison population would have.

‘Explosion in the prison population’

Mass incarceration has been trending upward across the nation for decades, the report said. From 2000 to 2016, North Dakota’s rate of imprisonment doubled, the report said. In 2018 there were 1,695 people in North Dakota prisons.

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“I don't want people to take our reports as an indictment on the North Dakota system because I do think North Dakota is doing lots of things right,” DeKrey said. “Just like the surrounding areas, I think North Dakota sort of got caught up in a frenzy of mass incarceration, thinking that that was the way to solve the problem. And so I think that's the area where North Dakota and the surrounding states can all do better. I think that there was this explosion in prison population and we are just beginning to rethink that.”

The report found that drug crimes are disproportionately impacting the increase -- during the last decade the number of admissions for drug or alcohol related offenses increased by 79%. Nearly half of all admissions into North Dakotan prisons in 2018 were for drug or alcohol crimes and those offenders made up 29% of the population as a whole.

The ACLU report said the state’s sentence enhancements like Truth-in Sentencing law and habitual offender laws keep more people in prison when they otherwise may have benefited from probation and parole as a form of rehabilitation. The Truth-in Sentencing law maintains that people convicted of certain crimes must serve 85% of their sentence before they’re eligible for parole or probation.

There are significant disparities related to race and gender in the prison system, according to the report. From 2008 to 2018 the number of women in prisons increased by 23% while the number of men only went up by 14%. The report also noted the Native American imprisonment rate is six times that of white adults. Despite Native Americans only accounting for 4% of the state’s total population, they make up 19% of the prison count.

‘Why should we be trying to help these folks who've made these bad choices?’

To reduce the prison population, the report said it’s necessary to reduce admissions, cut down on time served and address population disparities.

DeKrey said it’s important to shift mindsets toward rehabilitation and away from a punishment-only perspective.

“Almost all of these people are going to become our neighbors and citizens in our community at some point and so if that's how we treat them, we better not be surprised when they come back out and they're not good citizens,” DeKrey said. “There's always going to be this hard morality or a fairness barrier, where you think, why should we be trying to help these folks who've made these bad choices? But I would say that is changing and I think it's changing in a good way.”

Admissions could be reduced by creating programs with services for substance use, mental health care, employment, housing, health care and vocational training. The programs can be an alternative to incarceration to avoid placing low-level and non-violent offenders in prison when they really need treatment. DeKrey said expanding access to similar programs while people are serving their sentence can significantly reduce recidivism, also.

The report also recommends support for marijuana decriminalization, eliminating cash bail, a review of minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines and enhancements and improving parole policies.

The report estimates the changes would reduce the prison population by 1,015 people by 2025 and save taxpayers $125 million.

DeKrey said he’s heard positive comments from lawmakers and is encouraged by North Dakota’s steps to reduce mass incarceration. He hopes the report can start a conversation and spark changes that will reduce the prison population, even if the 50% rate isn’t met by 2025.

The report “provides a clear path to get better outcomes for the state of North Dakota,” DeKrey said. “By that I mean, less people in prison, more people at places where they need to be if they have mental health, or substance abuse treatment issues. So better outcomes for less money because we are spending a lot of money and we aren't really getting the outcome that one would expect with that money.”

The full report is available online at https://50stateblueprint.aclu.org/states/north-dakota.