- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 28, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A proposal to bill counties if they send too many prisoners to state lockups doesn’t address North Dakota’s rising population and crime rates due to the oil boom, and also presents pragmatic and potentially ethical dilemmas for counties, local officials say.

The Legislature is considering a proposal to set a county-by-county allocation at state prison facilities using a formula based on population. Counties that exceed their quota would be billed $75 per day for every inmate over that level. Counties that stay within their allocation would be eligible for state money for corrections-related programs.

State’s attorneys and law officers criticized the proposal Wednesday during a hearing before the Human Resources Division of the House Appropriations Committee. Officials said it would make it impossible for county sheriffs to budget, would put counties in competition for state resources and might improperly put a financial influence on sentencing recommendations and decisions made by prosecutors and judges.

“The criminal justice system should not operate on artificial quotas and fiscal considerations,” North Dakota Association of Counties spokesman Aaron Birst said. “It should operate on what the elected officials determine is a fair and just result based on the facts.”

Annual state inmate additions tripled between 1992 and 2014, according to North Dakota corrections data. A $64 million expansion was completed last year at the State Penitentiary in Bismarck, but it already is at capacity.

“There has to be a better answer than just continuing to build,” said Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby.

The goal of the quota proposal is to put more emphasis on programs that help reduce inmate numbers, such as addiction treatment and programs aimed at reducing the number of convicts who reoffend.

“We have a (Corrections) budget that is full, and we’re going to have falling oil revenue. We have to find a way to get (overcrowding) under control,” said Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington. “What we’re asking for is help - not just saying it’s not going to work.”

County officials said they are implementing such programs and also building their own new facilities to handle an increase in crime.

Burleigh County, which the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says is one of the biggest users of the State Penitentiary, is building a $70 million jail with neighboring Morton County. In the oil patch, Williams County built a new jail in 2008, and McKenzie County is planning a new facility. Residents of Ward County, on the edge of the oil patch, will vote next month on whether to double a $41 million jail expansion they approved in 2012.

“The counties have stepped up to the challenge,” Ward County State’s Attorney Rozanna Larson said.

Burleigh County State’s Attorney Richard Riha said the quota proposal is a “slippery slope.”

“It sets a dangerous precedent,” he said. “If this proposal is approved, what is to stop other state agencies from doing the same thing?”

Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert suggested a comprehensive study and overhaul of the state prison system, an idea that intrigued Nelson.

“If this doesn’t change, we’re going to be adding another wing to the Penitentiary,” Nelson said. “Quite honestly, I don’t want to do that.”


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