Thursday, March 30, 2017

Justice Reform Bills Pass House and Senate



Based on an increasing demand for prison space, the legislature has undertaken a number of criminal justice reforms. The legislature began a comprehensive review of North Dakota's jail and prison system in the interim with the effort primarily being overseen by the Council of State Governments. CSG began by reviewing data from both county jails and the North Dakota State penitentiary. The end result was the criminal justice system is a poor substitute for local mental health and chemical treatment options. In attempt to address that result, the legislature offered many bills this session which contained modifications to North Dakota's statutes.

Many of those bills became a step closer to reality today after the Senate approved many of the changes previously adopted by the House. HB 1041 is the signature bill of this effort which focuses on ensuring defendant's are eligible for good time even when serving sentences at local jails. Additionally, 1041 requires judges to sentence defendants convicted on the lowest level felonies to be first sentenced to probation as opposed to sending them into prison or jail. This clause has become known as "presumptive probation." Judges are allowed to deviate from such probation if they find the defendant has demonstrated some aggravating factors which would justify incarceration. The bill also reduces drug offense levels for both the drug itself and the accompanying paraphernalia.

SB 2149 also got one step closer to passage today after receiving Senate approval. SB 2149 is also aimed at reducing sentences for drug offenses and in particular those accused of dealing drugs. However, instead of lowering penalties for drug dealers, 2149 simply reduces (roughly by half) the minimum mandatory sentences which will allow courts to ultimately determine the sentence.

What effect these bills will have on the State or County's bottom line is too early to tell but one thing for certain is both sides of the isle support efforts to reduce incarceration.

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