- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - Sitting in his office at the Williams County Law Enforcement Center, where he scanned the jail inmate roster one recent afternoon, Williams County Sheriff Scott Bushing struggled to find the solution to an overcrowded system.

The county jail, built six years ago with the expectation of lasting five decades, has become insufficient.

Oil Patch sheriffs like Busching_whose cell space issues mirror most in the state_housed a daily average of less than 30 inmates when voters approved a half-cent sales tax to build the law enforcement center and 112-bed jail. The facility has noticeably expanded, holding 130 male and female inmates in 132-beds just over a week ago.

“We never envisioned that this jail would be full,” he said. “But who could’ve planned for this?”

Built for stays less than one year, the jail houses local offenders and sends others to Rugby. The backlogged courts have exhausted lockup alternatives such as house arrest, the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1u7vZtr ) reported.

“We simply let people out of jail that probably should be here,” Busching said. “You have to prioritize.”

Meanwhile Divide, McKenzie and Williams counties lack mental health services, as well as alcohol and drug inpatient programs.

“Mental health is a big problem for us. There is no psychiatrist west of Highway 83,” Busching said. “People in need are sitting a jail cell. It’s not the place for them.”

Ordered by the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce overcrowding in its jail, Ward County began redirecting offenders to Rugby, Bismarck and Fargo in October. The 104-bed facility has released inmates accused of the lowest class of misdemeanor crimes on their promise to appear in court. The jail population has fallen by more than 44 percent, from 154 to 86.

Ward County voters approved a $40 million bond for a 50-cell jail expansion two years ago. Residents are scheduled to decide in a special election early next year whether to approve another $38 million bond to increase the facility to 100 new cells. The county has budgeted $160,000 for boarding inmates at other facilities next year, but it could surpass $700,000.

“Minot’s not getting any smaller,” said Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski, who added the city increased its population over the past four years by 40 percent, to 60,000 people. “More people. More crime. It’s the nature of the beast.”

In a move mirrored by other overcrowded jails, Ward County has sent more and more inmates eastward, battling the high costs of vehicle expenses and man power.

“I think our legislators see the need and I think some of the money that has been bankrolled in Bismarck_the oil surplus money_can be used for more officers or brick and mortar,” Kukowski said.

The county has more than doubled its emergency call volume while losing officers to areas with cheaper rents, or oilfield jobs with higher wages.

“They get trained. They’ll quit and go to Bismarck and Fargo and have a lot less headaches. Or they find out it is too busy and too dangerous and usually go to the oilfield,” Kukowski said. “You just can’t compete with the oilfield. It’s good for those who have made it. But we have to keep people incarcerated too.”

Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert, who oversees a 138-bed jail, has spent more than $255,000 sending inmates to facilities in Cass County. Burleigh and Morton counties collaborated to pass a half-cent sales tax to open a new 476-bed facility in January 2017.

Before the oil boom, pre-sentenced inmates accounted for 10 percent of the jail population, but today, 95 percent are awaiting judges, Heinert said. Many present low risk, but remain locked up because they can’t afford bail. County jails have had to sign off on waivers to extend their housing periods after a year.

“Most are in here due to an uptick in alcohol and narcotic violations,” Heinert said. “County jails have to develop formulated programs.”

But in counties already struggling, jails are finding it difficult to get money to start and maintain treatment programs.

In Rugby, the Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center has gone through numerous changes. The 142-bed facility suffered financial shortcoming as a private organization before becoming a Pierce County department.

It offered alcohol and drug treatment until a security breach occurred in the summer of 2013, said Michael Graner, director of business operations. The center now has 18 boarding contracts. Federal agreements with the U.S. Marshals and the Bureau of Indian Affairs make up the majority of the jail population.

“This is a result of the energy boom and the population boom, and it was a matter of time,” Graner said. “At this time, with the number of counties looking to add new jails, it’s difficult to tell if they can build big enough to handle what they need.”

With new jails being proposed, the surface on mental health still needs to be scratched, according to experts.

“A jail is not the best place in the world to house a mental health person,” said Doris Songer, operations administrator at the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center in Dickinson. “We need a detox and mental health facility in this area so those people aren’t sitting in jail. We need a lot more alcohol, anger management and narcotics treatment programs in jail because a lot of these people aren’t going to get to the penitentiary.”

The center is an entity created by the counties of Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden, Valley, Hettinger, Slope and Stark. The 124-bed facility houses inmates from McKenzie and Mountrail counties as well, Songer said. She has seen an increased number of inmates sentenced on felony charges but staying less than one year in jail. “I see that happening a lot, and unfortunately recidivism is very high in those situations,” Songer said. “It looks like crime does pay.”

Relocating from Illinois to North Dakota in 1995, she remembered legislators saying the state had a “better class of criminal” more than once.

“I thought that statement was a little strange, but now I know what they were talking about,” said Songer, who notices an increase of out-of-state inmates charged with more serious and high volume crimes. “There’s a lot of good people drawn to our community, but also other people that follow the money.”

The state reported a record number of inmates, and record numbers of probationers and parolees on supervision.

The DOCR is responsible for inspecting jails for standards compliance, and manages three correctional institutions for adult male inmates, a juvenile facility and a contract for housing adult female offenders. The correction department’s average daily count of adult inmates increased 6.4 percent from 2008 to 2013, from 1,437 to 1,529, and all of its 1,576 inmate beds were full at the end of last year.

For the 2013-15 biennium, the legislature approved a $217.1 million budget. The state’s $64 million penitentiary expansion and renovation project was completed last year. The project included a 180-bed general housing unit, a 120-bed reception and orientation unit, a 108-bed administrative segregation unit and a 22-bed medical unit.

The legislature appointed a group to study ways to reduce pressure from prisons and jails. The group previously voted to advance bills giving judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentences such as crimes involving drug paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, Section 6 of Senate Bill 2015 has provided the DOCR the authority to refuse to admit inmates sentenced when prison is full. The state has yet to refuse any inmate, but population increases are expected. And Bottienau, Rolette and McKenzie counties are among those predicting overflow and planning expansion of their jails. McKenzie has hired an architect to expand its nine-bed facility to house 120 inmates. Commissioners budgeted $22 million, and planned 30 percent of construction to be completed in early next year.

North Dakota has become an oil-rich land of rushed planning, and on criminal justice and incarceration, the Peace Garden State has lacked the crystal ball needed to show it how many criminals will be put behind bars.

“The public demands that you put people in jails. Society demands it. But they don’t like building jails,” Busching said. “It’s all about the money.”

___

Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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