BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota's robust economy has led to a record population, the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and thousands of more jobs than takers. But the state's economic miracle led by its oil bonanza also has resulted in plenty of problems, including more crime and increasingly overcrowded prison and jail cells.
A state commission made up of lawmakers, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials is looking for ways to free up limited lockup space without compromising public safety.
The 18-member commission is studying alternatives to incarceration such as enhanced treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent criminal offenders, said Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, the commission's chairman.
"We're getting our hands forced," said Carlisle, who once was a staunch supporter of mandatory minimum sentences for all offenders. Now he points to Republican-led states such as Texas that are finding alternatives to incarceration are less expensive than building new lockups.
"If they are looking at this stuff, we sure can," he said.
Carlisle said the effort is aimed at "salvageable, treatable people with the message that we can put a carrot out for your treatment, but if you violate, there is a cell waiting for you."
Jail and prison cells throughout the state, however, are increasingly scarce.
North Dakota's state prisoner population has grown from 567 in 1994 to 1,576 last year — a nearly 178 percent increase. The state's population has grown about 13.3 percent during that time, to a record 723,393 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
About half of the inmates in the state prison system are locked up for nonviolent crimes, said Leann Bertsch, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. And about half of the state's prisoners are relatively new to the state, she said.
At the state penitentiary in Bismarck, a $64 million expansion completed last year — and the biggest since it was built in 1885 — already is at capacity, and county jails across the state are cramped.
"It can't be business as usual — people need to prioritize and take a hard look at resources we have," said Bertsch, who supports alternatives to prison and allowing judges wider discretion in sentencing. "We're still locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders."
Bertsch said when low-risk offenders are put in prison they often continue criminal behavior after release because "they learn to be a criminal."
Lt. Paul Olthoff, who works at the Ward County Jail in Minot, said the lockup's population has doubled in the last decade with the explosion of oil development in the region. The jail's capacity is 104 inmates but often tops 120 with prisoners forced to sleep on mattresses outside of jail cells.
"We're doing the best with what we have, but it's a liability for officers and those who are in jail," he said. "More prisoners means more lawyers visiting client, more medical, more of everything you can think of."
In Williston, the epicenter of the state's oil patch, a multimillion-dollar jail and law enforcement center designed to handle prisoner growth for decades was full shortly after construction was completed in late 2008.
"It was sold as a 50-year jail," Williams County Sheriff Scott Busching said. "Where do we go from here?"
Two new judgeships have been added in the region along an additional prosecutor, "which means more people are going to be sentenced," he said.
Busching also supports sentencing options for nonviolent offenders.
"When I need jail space for a guy who assaulted his kid or his wife and that jail space is being taken up by someone who had some marijuana, that's where I think these alternatives will work."
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