A violent criminal in the North Dakota prison system is eligible for parole after serving 85% of an incarceration sentence. A 20-year sentence, therefore, can be trimmed to 17 years, provided the inmate exhibits good behavior during that time.
That’s because current law in North Dakota allows it -- again, even for inmates convicted of violent crimes like murder and rape. Now, a new proposal has been floated that could lessen sentences even more.
House Bill 1104 seeks to reduce the amount of required jail time to 65%. Proponents say it would increase good behavior in the prison system and save money. It costs roughly $48,400 to house an inmate for a year, but $1,800 to put them on parole.
The Herald reported on HB 1104 Saturday, noting the idea behind the bill isn’t just about cost savings, but also about reversing years of tough-on-crime efforts that some believe have been inefficient and ineffective.
But allowing violent offenders an opportunity for release after 65% of their sentence? That’s just too much, too early.
The tougher crime-fighting efforts of the 1980s and ’90s did seem, at the time, like the best approach, yet in hindsight, it’s easy to question it now. Meanwhile, prison systems elsewhere are showing that a gentler process that focuses on rehabilitation is effective and costs less, too. As reporter Sam Easter wrote in the Herald’s Saturday report, “a favorite sentiment around the state prison system has been that these prisoners will someday be your neighbor. Wouldn’t you like them to be a good one?”
Yet we side with many in law enforcement and in the court system who feel allowing the hardest criminals an early exit puts violent criminals back on the streets too soon and may not serve as an adequate deterrent for future offenders.
Said Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Haley Wamstad: “With all due respect for the Parole Board, they don't do as in-depth of an analysis as the sentencing judge does. Oftentimes, the sentencing judge has sat through the entire trial. ...I think on the most serious, dangerous offenses that we see coming through on our criminal justice system, we need to rely on folks that are digging deepest into the defendants' background."
She also believes many parole officers are worn thin. How will they handle an increased caseload that would come from the 65% rule?
Another concern: In its current form, HB 1104 would apply retroactively to 1995. That means quick release for some, and it could be traumatic for victims and their families.
A good system should be a hybrid, one that adequately penalizes criminals with sentences befitting of their crimes, while also providing an incentive for good behavior while serving. It also should, as others have done elsewhere, focus on rehabilitation that helps inmates see their errors and correct them rather than harden them. After all, we do want them to be good neighbors upon their release.
The 85% rule, we believe, is part of that hybrid. Moving to 65% is a large bite that’s tough to swallow.
The House Judiciary Committee gave HB 1104 a "do not pass" recommendation last week. Hopefully, other lawmakers will agree.