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Omdahl: Different tacks being tried in drug war

While North Dakota policymakers have been advocating less incarceration for drug crimes, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in an opinion-editorial piece in the Washington Post, said last week that it is time to get tougher.

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Lloyd Omdahl

While North Dakota policymakers have been advocating less incarceration for drug crimes, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in an opinion-editorial piece in the Washington Post, said last week that it is time to get tougher.

While some may disregard the message because of the messenger, Sessions is firing a shot across the bow of states that deserves consideration-especially in North Dakota, where the idea of rehabilitation instead of incarceration has taken center stage for the past two years.

Sessions points out that drug-related murders have increased; less than 3 percent of federal offenders were imprisoned for simple drug possession; plea bargaining has tempered commitments, and overdose deaths have increased substantially. It is a safe bet that his observations are applicable to the North Dakota scene.

Budget restraints in the last session prevented North Dakota from significant implementation of the dream of saving millions of dollars by moving convicts out of incarceration and into rehabilitation programs.

Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for rehabilitation is based not on the premise that these people need to be restored to society but that millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved. Well, it isn't going to be cheap.

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Rehabilitation is not a quick fix that will result in immediate savings. Changing the orientation of people who have been in the drug trade will require years of intensive casework which in itself will be costly in the short run.

The idea that we have incarcerated a bunch of folks who are eager to be transformed begs to be challenged. I do not have statistics but I'll bet that those who are in prison for drug-related crimes are there for trafficking more than for simple possession.

The nature of the prison population has changed considerably since I served as a secretary for the State Parole Board back in the Gov. Bill Guy administration. However, I learned a couple of enduring lessons.

The Parole Board met for three 3-day sessions each year, hearing almost every prisoner who would be eligible for release. Before each prisoner appeared before the board, the warden would provide us with a criminal history.

From the rap sheet, it was obvious that almost every prisoner had worked long and hard to get into prison, spending years in city and county jails before graduating to the state penitentiary.

These rap sheets included only those crimes known to the criminal justice system. Chances were very good that numerous crimes had gone undetected and the rap sheet listed only those known by law enforcement. In other words, the rap sheet was the tip of the iceberg. The same is very likely true about the prison population today.

Before we begin releasing prisoners with drug violations, it will be important to know and understand the reasons they worked their way into prison in the first place. Those reasons will need to be dealt with before any meaningful rehabilitation is going to happen.

Unless parolees demonstrate a clear willingness to adopt a new lifestyle and new friends, they will go back to the most profitable profession they know. Recidivism will be higher than for other crimes.

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Armed with the facts, Attorney General Sessions says "enough is enough" and will be enforcing a hard line. On the other hand, North Dakota is still touting early release and rehabilitation.

It will take at least 10 years of statistics to discover which approach was most effective.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and UND professor. He writes regular columns for the Herald.

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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