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Koppelman: Legislative efforts addressing issues in justice system

West Fargo Police Chief Michael Reitan should be complimented for his comprehensive, fact-based column in the Nov. 4 Pioneer about what North Dakota is doing to address prison crowding. It’s a topic that has attracted a fair amount of recent attention. That’s good and a thorough review is not only appropriate, it’s in the works.

Much of the recent discussion has been prompted by a presentation on prison crowding given by the director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation before an interim committee where we serve together – the Incarceration Issues Committee. In it, she suggested that more options, such as treatment, be considered, as it clearly will be.

The fact that our prison and jails are full is not news to legislators, and prison crowding is a symptom, not the crux, of the problem. In fact, legislative foresight already began to address the problem last session in a very thoughtful, bipartisan fashion, and the very meeting the director addressed was formed to begin further, comprehensive work on solutions. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed bills that began reform of some of North Dakota’s criminal statutes. They were the result of work the Alternatives to Incarceration Committee had done in the previous two years. I hadn’t served on that committee, but worked with our Judiciary Committee to craft the bills that passed.

It’s good that awareness of the concerns is apparently increasing, but it should also be reassuring that public officials and legislators are not only aware of, but also have been diligently working on these important issues.

While I’m “tough on crime,” colleagues have heard me say we also need to be “smart on crime.” That’s why, during this year’s legislative session, I brought people from the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center to the Capitol to meet with legislators, folks in the DOCR, the governor’s office, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, judges, public defenders, crime victim advocates and others, to begin the process of a justice reinvestment study (which is what began with the meeting cited). The Justice Center has a great track record with this type of work in other states, which has borne measurable, positive results.

Because of this track record, I then ensured that legislation a colleague had already introduced for such a study also directed the Justice Center’s involvement, along with that of the Pew Foundation and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. This means not only that we will have the benefit of proven expertise as we continue to tackle these issues in a more comprehensive fashion but also that North Dakota taxpayers won’t be on the hook for the costs of this valuable assistance.

This interim, during the next legislative session and beyond, I look forward to working to help ensure that meaningful, evidence-based reform occurs in North Dakota so that those who belong behind bars stay there, but also that appropriate, proven alternatives are in place for those who may not.

Koppelman represents West Fargo’s District 13 in the North Dakota House of Representatives. He has served since 1994.