ND prison chief wants quota system for counties
Proposal to have counties share in state penitentiary costs if a quota is exceeded
BISMARCK, N.D. — A proposal by North Dakota’s top prison administrator to have counties share in state penitentiary costs if a quota is exceeded is meeting opposition from local officials, law enforcement, judges and prosecutors.
Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, will ask the Legislature when it meets next month to set a county-by-county allocation at state prison facilities using a formula based on the population of each county. Once a county exceeds the allocation, it would have to help pay prison costs. Bertsch also wants the state to establish incentives for counties that do not exceed the allotment.
“When an offender is sentenced to prison, state taxpayers bear the financial burden of that decision,” said Bertsch, who was appointed to the top prison post in 2005 by former Gov. John Hoeven.
Bertsch said “some judicial districts routinely sentence jail-appropriate inmates” to the state prison system to save money and jail space in those districts, though judges and prosecutors say that isn’t the case.
“I’ve never seen any evidence of that,” said South Central District Judge Gail Hagerty.
The disagreement points to frustration over an increasingly overwhelmed corrections system in oil-rich North Dakota.
Annual state inmate admissions have jumped from 407 in 1992 to 1,230 last year, corrections data show. North Dakota’s population has increased 13 percent during that time, from 638,223 to 723,393, census data show.
At the state penitentiary in Bismarck, a $64 million expansion completed last year - and the biggest since it was built in 1885 - already is at capacity, and many county jails across the state are overflowing.
“We can’t build our way out of this problem,” Bertsch said. At the current incarceration pace, the state’s current prison population will double in the next decade and quadruple in 20 years, she said.
Bertsch, a former assistant Burleigh County prosecutor, points to that county as being one of the biggest users of the state penitentiary. Corrections data show the 268 people from the county were sentenced to the state prison system in 2013. Cass County, the state’s most populous, had 122 prison admissions for the same year.
“Burleigh County has used the state penitentiary as a county jail,” Bertsch said.
Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha said “judges are sentencing appropriately, according to the circumstances of the crime. What is the answer? Are police to stop arresting, prosecutors to stop prosecuting and judges to stop sentencing?”
Judge Hagerty, who is based in Bismarck, also is critical of the agency’s plan.
“I don’t think anyway wants to take sentencing away from judges and give it to the Department of Corrections,” she said.
“We’re not trying to step on the toes of judges,” Bertsch said. “They can sentence how they want. But they would have pressure to use the (penitentiary) in a financially responsible manner.”
“We’re all trying to deal with the change in what North Dakota used to be,” said Aaron Birst, an attorney and lobbyist for the North Dakota Association of Counties, which opposes the corrections department’s proposal.
Judges and prosecutors are “aren’t sending people to the pen just to save counties money,” said Birst, a former assistant Cass County prosecutor and executive director of the North Dakota State’s Attorneys Association, which represents county prosecutors. “They are going there because of their criminal history and because they have done something pretty bad.”
Lawmakers, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials have been looking at ways to free up limited lockup space without compromising public safety in North Dakota for the past several years, including alternatives to incarceration such as enhanced treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent criminal offenders.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson said those efforts likely will continue but he’s unsure whether Bertsch’s proposal will fly with lawmakers.
“I do know there is going to be a lot of pushback from district judges and sheriffs,” Wardner said. “Everybody makes good points. But we just have to sit down and find solutions.”