BISMARCK — Pat Bohn has spent a long time working in corrections — long enough to climb from a rank-and-file parole and probation officer in the 1990s to a job heading North Dakota’s entire parole and probation operation today. He’s seen a lot of things change.

Chief among them is a philosophical shift in how North Dakota treats its criminals. Gone are the highly punitive, tough-on-crime ideas of the 1990s. Now, state leaders — from the Legislature to the front offices at the State Penitentiary — have come to embrace ideas they argue help criminals become better neighbors and citizens.

Average parole time — that’s the time spent finishing a sentence in the outside world — is going up in North Dakota, both as a result of legal changes and the Parole Board increasingly letting prisoners out earlier. State legislators, faced with growing prison populations, are decreasing criminal penalties and making it easier for offenders to find themselves on probation instead of in a cell.

Bohn’s work is right where those ideas meet the rest of the world.

“You listen to people, right? And they think, ‘You do the crime, you do the time,’ type of analogy,” he said. “That’s where the disconnect is at. And I think that’s where the tough work is … ours is not about being harsh or lenient. Ours is about being reasoned toward finding a balance of accountability and behavior change. And that doesn’t always mesh within our culture and what people want to see on the front page of the paper.”

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Bohn is doing the work that the state has tasked him with. But for some observers, what the state is doing amounts to shifting a problem, raising questions about the wisdom behind — or at least, the dollars committed to — the criminal justice reforms.

For some, the effect of all these policy and attitude changes is taking the problem of prison crowding and making it an issue of probation and parole overload — to the public’s detriment.

Grand Forks County State's Attorney Haley Wamstad, seen here in her office in May, said she sees a public safety risk because of a strained parole and probation and system. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Grand Forks County State's Attorney Haley Wamstad, seen here in her office in May, said she sees a public safety risk because of a strained parole and probation and system. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

“It’s absolutely a public safety risk,” Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Haley Wamstad said. “When these folks are returning from incarceration, that’s probably when they’re at the highest risk of reoffending and posing a risk to the public. When a judge places somebody on supervised probation, or places somebody in the North Dakota penitentiary, the judge does not do so lightly. These are folks who need supervision. They need monitoring in order to keep our streets safe and these people from reoffending.”

Exactly what a parole and probation officer’s experience is like, though, is hard to say. In researching this series, the Grand Forks Herald and North Dakota Newspaper Association reached out to dozens of sources, including state’s attorneys, law enforcement, legislators and the highest-ranking members of the state’s prison system. A reporter and photographer toured two prisons. A reporter read hundreds of pages of state documents.

At no point was a reporter granted the chance to speak with a rank-and-file parole and probation officer. A prison system spokesperson would not clarify the reason why despite repeated questioning.

Behind these changes are also questions about the resources states like North Dakota have to house prisoners. According to a state corrections spokesperson, the cost of incarceration is about $43,000 per inmate per year. The equivalent cost of a parolee is about $1,700.

This has grown more relevant as the cost of running North Dakota’s correctional system has skyrocketed. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the department expended about $120 million in the 1999-2001 biennium, according to state documents. But by the 2015-2017 biennium, it was spending $232 million — nearly double, after spending even more in the previous biennium. The department has added the equivalent of more than 260 full-time positions during the same period.

That’s because, by almost any measure, the job the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has to do has grown precipitously in recent years. Its total number of adult inmates grew from fewer than 1,000 at the end of 1999 to an annual average of 1,761 in late 2016. The same explosive growth was happening in the parole and probation populations, too.

But this kind of steady growth has come as North Dakota’s financial resources have ebbed and flowed. The state’s tax and fee revenues peaked in the 2013-2015 biennium; general fund revenues still haven’t recovered.

The tension between the prison system’s explosive growth and the state’s resources is one of the most important dynamics behind recent reforms. HB 1216, submitted to the Legislature during this year’s session would have required a prosecutor to estimate the cost of the sentences they recommend for criminals sent to North Dakota prisons. It was withdrawn before a vote.

The state has acknowledged struggling to keep up with the demands of its criminal population. The DOCR’s 2013-2015 biennial report, describing parole and probation, notes that "the number of offenders under supervision has surged and caused many challenges for the division. Parole officer caseloads have risen to more than 130 offenders in some areas, and staff has struggled to keep up with the workload increases." That problem has lessened, but it hasn’t gone away. The 2015-17 biennial report still calls the number “higher than would be optimal,” at about 75 parolees and probationers per supervisor, though “significantly lower.” The report for the 2017-2019 biennium had yet to be released as of this report.

State employment data helps shed light on how the corrections department has managed these changes. In April 2013, the department’s Parole and Probation Division employed 63 parole and probation officers, one of which worked part-time. By December 2018, that number had risen more than 30%, to 82, all full-time. Total corrections agents, another group that supervises offenders on release, ticked up from 19 to 21. A department spokesperson said that April 2013 are the earliest available records that describe the division’s employment composition in such detail.

Bohn hesitates to say exactly what the average caseload is now. He said numbers can range as low as 25 cases for division staff in drug courts — which can involve time-consuming cases — and reach up to 100 or more for others. The department is refining its definition for average caseloads, which he said may grow to include averages over time or de-emphasize parolees who are supervised in other states.

Bohn said North Dakota’s parole and probation officers often have persevered through those high caseloads, though. When he joined the corrections department in 1995, caseloads could reach as high as 120 or 130, he said.

“Matter of fact, I think I still have some of my caseload sheets sitting in one of my drawers; pull that out every now and then,” he said with a laugh. “But in terms of morale, (the job) can be stressful for people, because the staff that we have are really invested in wanting to help people change their lives … I think our caseloads need to be down across the state — in that 25 to 40 range is where I’d like to see them go. Because then you can start doing real work with people.”

But it’s unclear if the state is doing enough. Some of the progressive policies passed in recent years are poised to put more pressure on the parole and probation system. The state’s 2017 reforms include “presumptive probation,” which makes probation the default sentence for low-level crimes. Though this has the effect of decreasing pressure on prison availability, it’s designed to redirect that pressure on parole and probation resources.

Corrections officer Sean Eakes stops to speak with a prisoner at the North Dakota State Penitentiary during a shift in May. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Corrections officer Sean Eakes stops to speak with a prisoner at the North Dakota State Penitentiary during a shift in May. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Leann Bertsch disagrees with the assessment that new policies lean too heavy on Bohn’s officers, though, arguing that probationers and parolees, as a group, aren’t growing any faster than the inmate population.

But that prisoner population is limited in part by the prison system’s capacity — which state leaders are loath to expand. And according to a DOCR spokesperson, the department has a capacity for 1,624 men and 224 women — and as of July 10, the system included 1,555 men and 226 women.

But DOCR spokesperson Michelle Linster and other state leaders point out that state reforms go beyond just shifting how North Dakota manages criminals — or where it stores them. Free Through Recovery, a behavioral health program founded for the formerly incarcerated, was launched by the state in 2017. One of its goals is to rehabilitate them more effectively, too, which helps cut down on crime overall — with the hope that leads to fewer offenders entering the criminal justice system.

The North Dakota State Penitentiary is pictured Monday, July 15, 2019. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
The North Dakota State Penitentiary is pictured Monday, July 15, 2019. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

In the meantime, though, the parole and probation workload remains heavy.

“I’m asking the court to put (many offenders) on probation, which then puts more people in the probationary system,” Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget said. “And I don’t know that they’ve had that many more probationary officers in their system to supervise people that have been placed on probation (or parole).”

Those kinds of policies take a toll.

“All I do is I ask the probation officers, ‘How’s your caseload?’” Enget said. “And they just look at me and they say, ‘it’s extreme.’”

Editor’s note: This series, sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and the Grand Forks Herald, aims to answer questions at the difficult intersection between budget crunches, criminal justice and the well-being of North Dakota’s communities. As rising prison populations stress the state’s corrections system, how will state leaders address what some say is a risk to public safety?

Saturday: How corrections officials manage North Dakota’s criminals

Sunday: The political sea changes that built North Dakota’s prisons

Today: North Dakota’s other housing problem

Tuesday: Is North Dakota’s criminal safety net too thin?

Wednesday: How will North Dakota balance budgets and criminal justice?

To view previous stories in this series CLICK HERE.