Tough-on-crime bill rewritten to drop minimum sentences for violent gun crimes, offenses against police
The changes add minimum mandatories for special dangerous and habitual offenders. North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley said the intent of the bill has been removed.
BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers have thrown out minimum sentences for violent gun and drug crimes and offenses against law enforcement from a tough-on-crime bill proposed by the attorney general.
The House Judiciary Committee moved on Tuesday, March 28, in a 10-1 vote to add Attorney General Drew Wrigley’s clarification amendments to Senate Bill 2107. After reconsidering, the committee tossed out Wrigley’s amendments and replaced them with changes proposed by the North Dakota State’s Attorneys’ Association.
Those changes were backed by Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown.
“Criminal justice policy should be based on facts and evidence, not rhetoric and emotion,” Satrom told The Forum in an email after the vote. “And we should be laser focused on strategies that make the most effective use of our limited resources.”
The main purpose of the bill has been completely removed, Wrigley told The Forum in a Wednesday phone interview.
“It completely takes out protection for police officers,” he said. “It takes out protections for the public.”
Wrigley’s bill would have set minimum mandatory sentences for violent and drug crimes if the offender has a gun. Being in possession of a gun during a violent crime would land a defendant at least three years in prison, while firing one required a minimum sentence of seven years.
It also gave defendants at least 14 days in jail if they fled police, as well as 30 days for simple assault and preventing arrest.
Proponents of the bill said violent crime, particularly involving firearms, has been on the rise. Law enforcement also were concerned with repeat offenders being released from incarceration too soon.
Wrigley said the tougher penalties would deter crime.
“This bill is a public outcry,” Wrigley said. “This bill reflects what I have heard about across the state.”
Those who criticized the bill claimed it would clog courts and increase defense attorney costs since more defendants would take cases to trial. Opponents also said the legislation would put more people behind bars without reform to prevent crime.
In a compromise, Wrigley proposed making all minimum mandatory sentences presumptive after speaking with state’s attorneys across the state. That meant a judge would not have to hand down a minimum sentence as laid out in law, but they would have to put in writing a reason for choosing a shorter sentence.
After the Tuesday vote on Wrigley’s amendments, Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, said she preferred the Satrom amendments and asked to discuss the matter further. She was the lone dissenting vote on adding Wrigley's amendments, but Rep. Lori VanWinkle, R-Minot, asked to reconsider that vote.
“The Satrom amendments are not a hog house,” Roers Jones said during the hearing.
The Satrom amendments struck out the minimum sentences for violent gun and drug crimes, as well as offenses against police, altogether. Instead, they set minimums for special dangerous or habitual offenders.
That includes a person found guilty of an offense that seriously endangered another and had a conviction for a similar crime in the past, if they have at least two felonies on their record, are a “professional criminal” who received “substantial income or resources” from criminal activity, or if they are persistently aggressive and are a “serious danger” to others.
That person would face at least 10 years in prison if they are found guilty of a Class AA, A or B felony. A Class C felony would get that person a minimum of seven years in prison.
The Satrom amendments also make reckless endangerment a Class B felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, if a person knowingly or intentionally discharges a firearm. The committee approved Roers Jones’ amendment to make firing a gun with extreme indifference a Class C felony, which has a maximum sentence of five years.
“We don’t want to have someone convicted of a Class B felony for an inadvertent discharge of a firearm,” she said during the hearing.
She gave the example of a gun firing while being removed a case or put away.
Roers Jones told The Forum Friday she had concerns that Wrigley's version added charges for the same conduct, which could lead to double jeopardy. A person cannot be charged twice for the same crime.
"I feel like the State’s Attorneys amendments take a more measured approach to the issues that currently exist without creating additional burdens for the department of corrections and rehabilitation, our local jails and the taxpayers," she said in an email. "Almost all of the crimes that were enhanced in the attorney general’s bill are currently being prosecuted and sentenced under the available laws."
The final vote was 9-4 in favor of the Satrom amendments with Roers Jones' amendment. Voting in favor were Reps. Landon Bahl, R-Grand Forks; Donna Henderson, R-Calvin; SuAnn Olson, R-Baldwin; Nico Rios, R-Williston; Mary Schneider, D-Fargo; Steve Vetter, R-Grand Forks; Roers Jones; Satrom and VanWinkle.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck; Vice Chairwoman Karen Karls, R-Bismarck; and Reps. Cole Christensen, R-Rogers; and Claire Cory, R-Grand Forks, voted no.
Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler, who also serves as the North Dakota Police Chiefs Association president, called the change disappointing. He noted an increase in resisting, assaulting and fleeing from officers.
“I know that it’s real. It happens,” Ziegler said. “With this decision taking it out, it just kind of minimizes this idea of ‘Let’s back the blue.’”
Wrigley said he spoke with law enforcement for 18 months and worked with legislators on the bill. He was present to explain the clarification amendments before the initial vote then had to leave for an Industrial Commission meeting.
States Attorneys’ Association lobbyist Jonathan Byers said his group didn’t support Wrigley’s bill, which is why the association proposed its own version.
State’s attorneys use a voice of reason, he said in proposing that the bill be altered.
“I’m pleased that the House committee had the courage to not just go with the easy thing,” he told The Forum on Thursday.
Evidence shows mandatory, or even presumptive, sentences do not curb criminal behavior, Satrom said. Some studies suggest they exacerbate the problem, he added.
“At the end of the day, we still had to choose between two options rather than a collaborative solution,” Satrom said, adding his vote was based on empirical research.
The committee also approved language to study which people should be prohibited from possessing a gun and whether the current list should be expanded or narrowed.
The bill will go to the House Appropriations Committee since it has a fiscal note detailing the costs of the bill attached to it. If approved by the House, the legislation would go back to the Senate.