Crowded prison concerns

It’s an increasingly difficult problem for law enforcement agencies and judges in North Dakota: As the state’s population grows, so does the crime rate, creating overcrowding situations in jail and prison facilities.

A state commission made up of lawmakers, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials is studying alternatives to create more space in already cramped jail facilities. The 18-member commission is considering enhanced treatment options and rehabilitation programs as alternatives to locking up nonviolent offenders. With cell space at a premium around the state and especially in northwest North Dakota, officials believe they have no choice.

The state’s prison population has grown from 567 in 1994 to 1,576 in 2013, with about half of the inmates locked up for nonviolent crimes. Also, roughly half of the state’s inmates are relatively new to the state, officials say. A $64 million expansion at the state penitentiary in Bismarck is already at capacity. The Ward County Jail’s capacity is 104 inmates, but the facility often houses as many as 120 offenders.

It’s a difficult situation for judges, law enforcement and members of the public. Perhaps significant time in jail isn’t the best option for certain nonviolent offenders, but what should be done with someone convicted of serious drug offenses that don’t involve violence? Judges have seen an increase in mandatory minimum sentencing as residents voiced concern over potential light sentences in the past. Any change would surely need to allow judges more freedom in sentencing, but is that something the public would now support?

The state commission has a difficult task ahead of it as it searches for answers.