Our view: Better luck next time for sentencing bill

This attempt at creating new legislation had a lot of things that sound pretty good – things like accountability, transparency and stiffer penalties for gun crimes.

Herald pull quote, 5/10/23
Herald graphic

Last summer, Attorney General Drew Wrigley spoke about rising crime rates in North Dakota, and especially crimes that involve firearms.

During an August meeting with the Grand Forks Herald, he said he had been meeting with law enforcement personnel across the state. He said “the frustration level is at a boiling point. They are out there risking their lives. The gun offenders are off the chart. … It’s been going on for a long, long while.”

He continued: “Sheriffs, deputies, chiefs of police and their officers will tell you they get sentences that are not strong enough on the front end and then they come back too quickly. … It’s a joke. There is not enough of a price being paid.”

A few weeks later, in September, Wrigley unveiled North Dakota’s latest crime statistics, which showed violent crime rose 10% from 2021 to 2022. He proposed a violent crime legislative package.

Among the items: Stiffer penalties for those who carry or use firearms during a crime.


Fast forward to the 2023 session of the Legislature. Senate Bill 2107, which would have set minimum sentences for gun-related crimes, passed through the Senate but died in a 77-13 vote in the House.

It would have considerably stiffened penalties for crimes in which a firearm was involved – even if it wasn’t brandished or fired. For example: Someone who possessed a firearm during certain crimes would face at least three years in prison; firing a gun during a crime would add at least seven years.

The bill’s demise is an unfortunate end to what looked like a promising effort to reduce gun-related crimes in North Dakota.

It doesn’t take much time perusing the internet or watching the news to realize the impact that gun-related violence is having across the nation. Here in North Dakota, Wrigley said he has been discussing it for more than a year and has heard support for renovating how gun offenders are sentenced.

During a segment last week on Plain Talk, a podcast hosted by Forum Communications Co. blogger and columnist Rob Port, Wrigley lamented the legislation’s defeat but vowed to bring it back again in the future.

“This was very popular legislation,” he said. “I have been talking about this for 18 months around the state of North Dakota and the public is very supportive … because they realize that all across North Dakota violent crime is going up and violent crime with firearms in particular is going up, and they’re tired of it.”

Midway through the legislative process, Wrigley pushed an amendment that would make the sentencing “presumptive” – meaning judges would have discretion to not impose the mandatory sentence but would have to publicly explain why that path wasn’t taken.

Explained Wrigley: “She or he would have to, in our legislation, write in there ‘why not?’ Why did you not give an additional enhanced sentence for the use of a firearm in committing that violent offense?”


Wrigley believes it was innovative and would have eased the concerns about mandatory sentencing.

“It’s transparency, it’s accountability, it’s truth in sentencing and it’s dealing with violent criminals to make sure they get appropriate sentences and they are serving them,” he said.

This attempt at creating new legislation had a lot of things that sound pretty good – things like accountability, transparency and stiffer penalties for gun crimes.

Hopefully, when Wrigley brings it up in 2025, the proposal will have more success.

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