- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, May 28, 2015

Getting a grip on parole, probation

The Legislature, especially the last two sessions, has put a focus on law enforcement. Lawmakers have approved more funds for training officers and getting them in the field. The oil patch has benefited from this funding, getting additional officers to combat crime and monitor traffic.

More money also has gone to local law enforcement and the court system. And legislators this session approved $2.9 million to fund 16 more parole and probation officers over the next two years. It will be months, however, before the officers are on the job.

There are a record number of people on parole and probation in North Dakota. This is the result of several factors. The state’s population has grown and along with it crime has increased; the strong economy has drawn more people to the state, not all the finest; and the state has been cracking down on offenders.

The Associated Press reported the number of people on parole or probation in North Dakota was 6,843 two weeks ago, up more than 800 people from the same time a year ago and more than 2,050 since 2010.

There are 75 officers who supervise offenders in North Dakota, an average of about 90 cases per officer, according to Leslie “Barney” Tomanek, director of the state Department of Corrections’ parole and probation division. He said the ideal caseload would be about 65 offenders per officer.

In Williston the caseload is about 130-to-1 where three officers handle the cases.

Tomanek expects the caseloads to increase as more officers in the field bring offenders to justice. He said a good number of the 16 new officers will go to the oil fields where they perform record checks, verify employment, administer drug tests and visit offenders’ homes. It’s important work.

The Legislature has been working to boost law enforcement across the board. Everyone would like more money and personnel and it becomes a balancing act for lawmakers. It’s part of a larger picture the Legislature has started studying and debating. Some argue the state’s locking up too many people for lesser offenses, that alternatives are needed to incarceration.

The figures indicate both the need for prison time and the option for others to avoid it.

Lloyd Haagenson, who heads the parole office in Williston, said in recent years there have been more people on parole and probation convicted of violent crimes. The number of women on probation or parole has increased 48 percent in five years to 1,815. Haagenson said the bulk of female offenders have drug and theft convictions.

Violent crimes almost always merit time behind bars, but theft and drug cases can differ.

The Tribune has urged the Legislature and judicial system to look at reforms and sentencing alternatives. If more people are given the alternative of probation there needs to be enough officers to monitor them. The 16 new officers will help but more will be needed, especially if the state can find ways to send fewer people to prison and give them a chance to go straight.

That’s a big challenge that will take time and a lot of work.

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Minot Daily News, Minot, May 28, 2015

Not another dime for VA hospital

Why are top leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs not firing bureaucrats by the dozens? That may be the question some veterans were asking during Memorial Day weekend, as one more VA scandal made headlines.

Just before leaving Washington for the holiday, leaders in Congress got the VA off a sharp hook, at least temporarily. It involves a new VA hospital being built in Aurora, Colorado.

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the facility, the agency had run out of authority to pour more money into it. Lawmakers agreed to some budgeting changes that should keep construction from coming to a halt.

But Congress will have to provide a Colorado-sized mountain of new cash to complete the hospital, thanks to cost overruns.

A year ago, lawmakers had been assured the cost would be in the $600 million range. Now, the price tag is $1.74 billion.

Brace yourself for this: That is for a hospital with 184 beds. Your math is correct: That works out to more than $9.4 million per bed.

Good gracious! Are the bed pans to be made of solid gold?

There have been no reports anyone in the VA was fired or even slapped on the wrist because of the enormous cost overrun. The same goes for reports the agency has done virtually nothing to reduce long waiting times some veterans face when they ask for appointments with VA doctors. The agency has been given about a year and $5 billion to take care of that mess.

In fact, VA officials were more eager to cover their own backsides than to tackle the wait-list scandal. They had proposed using some of the $5 billion Congress provided for that purpose to handle the Colorado cost overruns. Lawmakers said no.

It is not as if the VA does not have plenty of real, dedicated talent in its ranks. Many veterans praise the care they get from some in the agency. Why, then, can’t the VA fire officials and employees who are incompetent, dishonest or selfish, and replace them with true public servants? Congress should not provide another dime for the monument to waste in Colorado until it gets an answer.

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