A committee studying ways to reduce crowding in the state’s jails and prisons released its proposals last week.
The committee suggested bills that would give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentences and juvenile transfers to adult court and make it a less severe offense to possess drug paraphernalia in certain cases.
These proposals appear to be logical solutions.
New jails have been built and others are in different stages of construction.
In Williston, a multimillion-dollar jail and law enforcement center designed to handle prisoner growth for decades was full shortly after it was completed in late 2008.
The state penitentiary in Bismarck recently underwent a $64 million expansion, but already is at capacity.
Burleigh and Morton counties in June approved ballot measures for a joint jail. Plans for the new jail include provisions for expanding the facility.
About half of the inmates in the state prison system are locked up for nonviolent crimes, according to Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“If you want to see who’s clogging up the jail cells, just look at drug paraphernalia,” Bertsch told the Commission on Alternatives to Incarceration last week.
The 18-member commission was directed by the 2013 Legislature to study sentencing alternatives for first-time, nonviolent felony offenses except for drug distribution.
The six legislators and 12 commission members from law enforcement, human services, corrections and the courts also reviewed mandatory sentences, treatment options, expanded use of problem-solving courts, home monitoring and other related issues.
They recommended, according to a Forum News Service story, a bill for the 2015 Legislature that would reduce the severity of the charge of possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to inject, ingest, inhale or otherwise induce a controlled substance into the human body.
For all controlled substances other than marijuana, the bill would reduce the offense from a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine to a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine.
For marijuana-related paraphernalia, the charge would be reduced from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor, which is the same offense level for marijuana possession and carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The commission removed a provision in the bill that would have followed South Dakota in repealing a law that makes it illegal to ingest a controlled substance.
Rep. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, the legislative committee chairman, said the commission knows the state needs additional drug and alcohol treatment services and will make recommendations to the Legislature.
The proposals are logical and just the beginning of the solution to the crowding. They are not an endorsement of drug use.
The proposals recognize putting nonviolent offenders behind bars doesn’t solve the drug problem.
Sentencing options that provide counseling and treatment will hopefully help offenders go straight. If they don’t, jail time remains an option.
However, if we can find ways to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail and make them productive citizens, everyone benefits.
The Legislature should take a serious look at the proposals and adopt legislation that puts North Dakota on the road to solving the problem.
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