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ND's data-driven push to reduce prison populations follows growing trend among states

North Dakota's Free Through Recovery initiative, launching Feb. 1, is aimed at reducing skyrocketing increases in the population of the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. Photo special to The Forum.

FARGO—North Dakota, bucking a national trend of continued declining imprisonment rates, saw its imprisonment rate climb 3 percent and its crime rate soar 13 percent in 2016.

The numbers come from a Pew Charitable Trusts study, which noted ongoing reductions nationally in both the imprisonment and crime rates.

But North Dakota should start seeing reductions in its imprisonment and recidivism rates under an initiative that will launch Thursday, Feb. 1, that is based on principles and research that have enabled many other states to see reductions documented in the Pew study, an expert said.

"North Dakota enacted landmark legislation that is projected to prevent further growth in prison populations," said Marc Pelka, deputy director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which advised North Dakota officials in drafting an effort called Free Through Recovery.

North Dakota's commitment is noteworthy for the $7.5 million in funding the state is making available upfront, to fund community-based services, including behavioral health services.

"It is remarkable what North Dakota has enacted," Pelka said. Research and analysis that helped to shape Free Through Recovery was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which works with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Without Free Through Recovery, North Dakota's prison population was projected to grow 29 percent between 2018 and 2022, requiring $115 million in new state funding to cover the cost of contract beds to accommodate the growth.

"They're on a trajectory to avoid that growth and shift a portion of that investment to communities," Pelka said.

Analysis showed that many prison inmates in North Dakota were serving sentences for minor drug and property crimes, he said. Prison growth also was driven by people who fail supervised release.

The study identified a shortage of community-based behavioral health service providers willing or able to serve people with behavioral health disorders as an obstacle to the state's ability to reduce recidivism for people on supervised release.

To help implement the program, North Dakota will continue to receive assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center to for up to one or two years.

North Dakota should start seeing reductions similar to those from many other states that have adopted reforms, through a partnership between criminal justice and behavioral health programs, Pelka said.

The nation's imprisonment rate fell 11 percent in the eight years since peaking in 2008. The nation's combined property and violent crime dropped 23 percent during the period, according to the Pew analysis.

Since prison rates peaked in 2008, 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates, including declines of 15 percent or more from 20 states across the country.

In 2016, Minnesota's imprisonment rate edged up 1 percent, while its crime rate plunged 24 percent, just more than the national average, according to the Pew study. South Dakota's imprisonment rose 6 percent and its crime rate soared 20 percent in 2016.

Thirty-five states cut crime and imprisonment rates simultaneously, the Pew study found, and 21 states recorded double-digit declines.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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