Friday, April 29, 2016

NDACo President Testifies on Social Service Funding

As the interim Political Subdivision Taxation Committee furthers it's discussion on transferring the cost of social services from the counties to the state, legislators look for greater information from the counties. Committee members, who are a combination of lawmakers who sit on the tax and finance and human service committees have a desire to really understand the long-term commitment in assuming these costs. Transferring the cost of county social services to the state is estimated at $100 million a biennium. This in turn, will result in a decrease in local property taxes, which is currently how social service programs are largely funded in North Dakota counties.
NDACo President Steve Reiser appears before Political Subdivision Taxation committee

NDACo was asked to respond to several committee member's questions and concerns during a hearing this week. Legislators wanted a look at the social service budgets for 2015 county by county. What NDACo President Steve Reiser provided legislators was a thorough look at the expenses associated with a county social service department. In which a majority, 87 percent, of county social service budgets are direct personnel costs including salary, payroll taxes and benefits.

The committee also requested that NDACo provide input into the appropriate growth, or inflation factor to use in calculating future reimbursements. Personnel costs are almost exclusively driven by state salary adjustments and health insurance premium changes. NDACo proposes using a blended factor to reflect growth of both salaries and insurance rather than an inflationary rate that has no direct relation to those two adjustments.

Lawmakers also wanted to explore what is the appropriate ending fund balances or reserves to be maintained by a social service unit. NDACo maintains that a certain level of reserves is critical for social service programs. A formula should be developed that also addresses ending fund balances. Legislators suggest the balances above that threshold could be deposited in the county general fund to reduce taxes.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Justice System Study Focuses on Sentences

Majority of Jail and Prison Inmates Serving Time 
for Low-Level Felonies 
CSG's Marc Pekka goes through analysis with committee members
North Dakota lawmakers are exploring what changes they can make to alleviate the crowding issues in our prison and jails. The Council of State Governments (CSG) is in the middle of conducting a Justice Reinvestment study in North Dakota.

After their recent presentation to the incarcerations committee it is clearer what possible solutions will be surfacing as lawmakers work towards developing a bill draft later this year. If Legislators don't desire to create additional space at the state prison, they will need to make major adjustments to the judicial system and beyond.

How did we get to this? Felony sentences doubled between 2011-2014. Drug offenses were the primary driver of that increase with 79 percent of the felony drug offenses being for possession. In 2014, Four out of five felony sentences were for Class C felonies, the lowest level felony. Of those, 76 percent were sentenced to jail or prison. The folks from CSG commented how this fact really struck them. That a majority of those serving time were locked up for the low-level offenses.  

CSG also noted how North Dakota is under utilizing probation. North Dakota district judges sentence felony offenders to probation in 10 percent of the sentences. That's compared to the national average of 27 percent. CSG hinted that if treatment services were improved probation may be utilized more as an option for low risk offenders instead of going to jail or prison.  

CSG left the meeting by identifying a few options for the committee think about as possible policy solutions:
 1. Avert significant increases in corrections spending by prioritizing incarceration for the high-risk most serious crimes.
2. Increase the effectiveness of supervision and probation on higher-risk probationers and parolees to reduce the risk of re-offending. 
3. Improve community-based treatment services and capacity to provide treatment options outside of the prison and jail system.

CSG plans to be back before the committee in June and again in July to discuss other areas of their analysis to include pretrial processes, recidivism, and a look at the various roles of county jails, prison, probation and parole.  They hope to review policy options in order to draft a bill in the fall.