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Omdahl: What To-Do About These Ex-Convicts

By Staff | Jan 22, 2016

The prison population in North Dakota has tripled from 578 in 1995 to 1,800 in 2015 and is expected to increase to 2,985, all at the annual cost of $43,000 per inmate.

The state corrections budget has doubled to $100 million annually in the last decade and promises to continue spiraling upward.

Our parole and probation officers have around 5,000 clients to keep on the straight and narrow, meaning that each officer has a caseload of over 70 offenders. This load will increase dramatically in the next 10 years, meaning larger legislative appropriations for more staff.

These are the facts that have forced the assembling of a 16-member state study committee to consider recommendations for the upcoming legislative session.

First of all, we put offenders in prison for one of four reasons: (1) to protect society, (2) to exact punishment, (3) to deter criminal behavior, and (4) to rehabilitate wrongdoers.

Some have concluded that incarceration doesn’t do much to deter criminal behavior and it is no longer in vogue to demand an “eye for an eye.” That leaves us with protecting society and rehabilitation.

One idea is to repeal some laws defining crimes. Then it would not be necessary to arrest, convict and incarcerate the large number of “minor” offenders who allegedly are not a threat to society but need rehabilitation. (That is akin to increasing the speed limit to 90 MPH to reduce arrests for speeding.)

Because drug convictions are crowding the penitentiary, great emphasis is being placed on rehabilitation of these and other lesser offenders. Besides, punishment and deterrence don’t seem to be working that well, although we don’t have data to make any sort of judgment.

But overreliance on rehabilitation to protect society may be a stretch. After all, we are not talking about Sunday School kids caught in playground pranks.

Listen to District Judge Gail Hagerty of Bismarck who pointed out recently that judges have given offenders several chances before sending them off to prison. Prison is a last resort for judges after trying a string of warnings and sentencing alternatives.

It is not the criminal code that needs to change, she argues, but the level of services being provided to keep offenders out of jail in the first place.

Judge Hagerty is right. During my stint as secretary of the State Parole Board, I had occasion to review the “rap” sheets of prisoners as they appeared before the Board.

It was obvious that the vast majority of those in prison did not walk into the state prison for a single offense. It required determination and multiple offenses to get enrolled.

First, they had been warned for minor offenses; then they ended up in county jail; then they were put on probation; then they were back in county jail; finally they were sent to prison. Most of them had made a lifestyle out of criminal behavior.

Because a lifestyle change will be necessary, we have underestimated what rehabilitation means in real life. Creating new behavior patterns is a long, tedious process. First, it will demand a commitment to change from the offender and then it will require more state and local assistance in housing, employment and social barriers.

The present ratio of one probation officer for 70 offenders will not do the job. So we might as well brace ourselves for six-digit expenditures for the rehabilitation of each offender, with each officer carrying only 10 or 15 clients in an intensive one-on-one program.

All of this being said, rehabilitation is one solution for prison crowding but it is long term and will require considerable investment. Thus far, we haven’t measured up to the challenge or we wouldn’t be faced with overcrowding today.

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