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Senate approves ND criminal justice reform, hopes to reduce prison costs, reoffenders

BISMARCK—Criminal justice reform legislation breezed through the North Dakota Senate on Thursday, with a central piece of an effort to reduce incarceration costs and recidivism drawing one step closer to the governor's desk.

House Bill 1041 passed 46-0 without debate.

HB1041 is the product of interim legislative work on criminal justice reform alongside the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said the bill is a response to the decades-long war on drugs and subsequent tougher federal penalties for drug crimes.

"Essentially what we have done is figured out over the course of three decades is that you cannot incarcerate your way out of this issue," Armstrong said.

Changes in state law under HB1041 include decreasing the penalty for people convicted for a first-time offense for ingesting drugs or possession of paraphernalia from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B misdemeanor. Drug-free school zones are also reduced from 1,000 feet to 500 feet.

Another key change is no longer denying people convicted of felony drug offenses from access to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for a period of time upon release. The bill strikes existing language requiring a seven-year period following a person's most recent felony conviction before having access to the program.

The Senate amendments included authorization for using nearly $111,000 in state dollars and more than $1.5 million in federal dollars for the Department of Human Services to enact the provisions allowing for TANF benefits.

Armstrong called the TANF changes a positive step toward potentially reducing recidivism.

"The last thing that you want them to do when they get out of prison is to go back to the same people that helped them get into prison," Armstrong said.

Data provided to lawmakers during the session points to a sharp increase in the state's incarcerated population and costs to house them.

Daily inmate counts have risen 249 percent, from just over 510 in 1992 to more than 1,790 this year, with about an 18.8 percent statewide population increase during the same period. State spending for corrections was $81.7 million for the 2003-05 biennium; it had jumped to $215.3 million for the 2015-17 biennium.

Multiple cities across the state are also considering or in the process of expanding their jails to accommodate the upward trend.

HB1041 passed 86-4 in the House, which can concur with the Senate amendments or have the bill sent to conference committee.