Every year, Attorney General Wayne Stehnehjem’s office releases a report on crime data from around the state. Running dozens of pages, it’s a mountain of information, with spreadsheets of murders, kidnappings and arsons, indexed to population, cross-tabulated against drug use — often described in granular detail, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Call it a criminal-justice portrait of North Dakota.
Stenehjem has been in office since 2001. That’s long enough to watch that river of numbers shift and change as the state’s fortunes have risen, both through the oil boom and growth in western counties and beyond.
And what Stenehjem sees is an unmet need.
“We’re just seeing (an) incredible increase in the number of drug arrests. … In 2013 we had about 3,400 and in 2018, 5,400,” Stenehjem said. “I think that we’re recognizing that, long term, people that become addicted, if we are not adequately and affordably addressing the addiction and treatment for the addiction, we’re only going to see those people back in the criminal justice system time and again.”
That’s part of what’s driving overall crime higher in the state, he said, as drug crime “reverberates” through other offenses, like burglary and assault. In 2013, his office reported that there were more than 5,560 Group A offenses around the state for every 100,000 people — a category that includes serious offenses like rape, murder, blackmail, arson, assault and larceny.
In June, his office released the latest figures, showing that the same number has since reached about 6,340. It’s almost a 14% jump (though Stenehjem is quick to point out it has plateaued since 2015).
“We need to devote more resources to that treatment so that we can prevent (revolving-door prisons) — not just because it’s a cost-savings, but because it’s the right thing to do for people who are addicted,” Stenehjem said. “We’ve been addressing that, and the Legislature has, too, but not enough.”
His comments go to the heart of criminal justice concerns facing North Dakota. As crime rates rise, the state is increasingly contending with more pressure on its prisons, where inmate populations have been outpacing North Dakota’s population for years. As this series previously reported, tough-on-crime laws have helped feed incarceration rates in North Dakota and around the country for decades.
“There’s been an increase consistently over the years” in drug offenses, Dunn County Sheriff Gary Kuhn said in December. “It’s something that’s not going to go away, it’s something that continues to be a problem.”
While the prison system might “keep them sober for a while,” he said it’s easy for those with substance abuse problems to fall back into the habit once they’re out.
Over the past four installments, this series has outlined North Dakota’s answer. Faced with limited prison space and disinclined to pay for more, the state has turned to a suite of new policies, broadly dubbed “Justice Reinvestment,” to take pressure off of the prison system. In 2017, the right to receive food stamps was restored for many offenders; for others, the possibility of “presumptive probation” was created, fast-tracking many first-time drug offenders away from incarceration and into the care of probation officers.
“The goal was to curb our runaway spending on prisons by reserving our prison space for those who committed violent and serious offenses,” state Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, said. One of Justice Reinvestment’s marquee achievements is a program called Free Through Recovery. Launched in the 2017-19 biennium, it connects existing nonprofit services — on housing, job retention and the like — to ex-offenders who need help keeping their lives stable. That includes more well-known groups, such as Lutheran Social Services, which offers help finding housing and employment. It also includes lesser-known groups, like a Christian home in Jamestown that connects recovering drug users to 12-step programs and helps them search for a job.
Pamela Sagness leads the Behavioral Health Division for the state Department of Human Services, which administers the program. She said Free Through Recovery is building a far-flung support network that goes beyond just medical care — which is deeply important in North Dakota, where medical attention is concentrated in urban centers, away from addicts in the countryside.
“I’m from the town of Bowbells. It was me and five other people that graduated (high school),” she said. “My hometown is never going to have a comprehensive behavioral health or addiction program. However, there are individuals every single day in my hometown church that have lived experience and have something to contribute to help others.”
But many observers — from local state’s attorneys to Stenehjem himself — feel the state has more to do. There’s the question of high caseloads for parole and probation recipients, where some state’s attorneys see a risk to public safety. And there’s the question of expanding access to programs like Free Through Recovery, or the kind of medical treatment facilities North Dakota needs badly.
Sagness said that, in the last biennium, the state offered funding to expand Free Through Recovery beyond the formerly incarcerated, something she said “will be developed in the upcoming year,” with $4 million in additional funding. But she also pointed out there’s more to the problem.
“Even if we have a million dollars tomorrow, we still only have three medication-assisted treatment centers in the state,” she pointed out. “And until they have the capacity to expand, more money doesn’t change that.”
This was underscored by state Rep. Jon O. Nelson, R-Rugby, who is the chairman of the interim committee on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In his part of North Dakota, residents face a kind of medical desert.
“We don’t have a psychiatrist in my legislative district,” he said. “And it’s five counties.”
In a phone interview, Gov. Doug Burgum declined to say how much more he’d be willing to spend on behavioral health in the near future, but said “we’re not spending enough.” He said he dislikes calling it “spending,” though, preferring to call it “investing” in a lower-cost system that will cut back on the carceral treadmill Stenehjem described — in which drug offenses “reverberate” throughout North Dakota.
“We’re not investing enough and we’re not investing enough upstream. … Spending is building prisons. That’s at the end of the system. That’s the highest cost, least effective,” Burgum said. “The root of a lot of this relates to, basically, a public health issue related to the disease of addiction, which is touching almost every family, every organization and every community in the state.”
Pressed on whether the state should invest more in parole and probation officers, Burgum said he’s “willing to invest more as warranted.” And he said the equivalent of more than 50 additional full-time positions were allocated to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for this biennium.
But a DOCR spokeswoman said that, as a result of both the 2017 and 2019 sessions, only seven full-time job equivalents were added to the department’s parole and probation division.
State leaders also point to other programs, like growing momentum for pretrial services for the incarcerated. Sagness and Hanson both pointed out that a new Medicaid program for behavioral health was passed in 2019 and launches in 2020.
“That’s a game-changer for providers. When we talk about there not being providers in rural areas, there’s not going to be providers if there’s no reimbursement for the service,” Sagness said. “We’re shifting from a mindset of behavioral health being charity work or grant-based, to recognizing that we need to be professional, we need to know how to do business just like any other health care entity.
Cass County State’s Attorney Birch Burdick hesitated to weigh in on questions of state resources for his community. He deals with the cases that come through his office, he said, and was loath to speak out of turn about crime rates — which he said are more of a local police matter — or parole and probation caseloads. But he offered thoughts that cut to the heart of North Dakota’s criminal justice woes.
“I think these are all good people trying their best to do that under circumstances where resources are necessarily finite,” Burdick said. “Are there enough resources? You know, I don’t know how to answer that. Because nobody has an unlimited number of resources.”
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 wellbeing of North Dakota’s communities. As rising prison populations meet rising parole and probation caseloads, how will state leaders handle a system said to risk public safety?
Saturday: How corrections officials manage North Dakota’s criminals
Sunday: The political sea changes that built North Dakota’s prisons
Monday: North Dakota’s other housing problem
Tuesday: Is North Dakota’s criminal safety net too thin?
Today: How will North Dakota balance budgets and criminal justice?