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Port: Petty fight over women’s prison now puts North Dakota’s criminal justice reform at risk

Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. -- It’s fitting that the first bill of the 2019 legislative session signed into law by Gov. Doug Burgum was a bit of criminal justice reform.

The legislation, which ends mandatory minimum sentences for repeat drug offenders, is one front of many in North Dakota’s ongoing efforts to move away from the worn out throw-the-book-at-em approach favored by some (including certain factions still entrenched in the law enforcement community).

Burgum campaigned on this sort of reform, and to their credit most lawmakers have taken up cause as well.

But the progress our state has made, and may still make, on criminal justice reform has now been put in jeopardy by a political tantrum over the Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center in New England, N.D.

That facility is operated by a consortium of western counties under a lucrative contract with the state. Burgum, backed by Department of Corrections head Leann Bertsch, wants to end that contract and move the inmates elsewhere.

Bertsch, in particular, has been outspoken about the myriad problems at the facility. Its remote location inhibits rehabilitation by making visits from friends and family difficult. That issue also contributes to poor health services for the inmates. Bertsch told me during a recent interview things are so bad at the facility it’s her opinion the Eighth Amendment rights of inmates are being violated.

She related a story about one former inmate saying she had such poor access to dental care she resorted to pulling her own tooth.

But Bertsch speaking out has earned her some political reprisal. The county consortium doesn’t want to lose their contract with the state. The city of New England doesn’t want to lose the jobs the facility creates there.

These interests have now gone on the attack against Bertsch.

A recent report, originating with The Dickinson Press, detailed supposed problems at the state penitentiary. It sensationalizes candy and pizza parties for inmates, but mostly it’s about anonymous griping from Department of Corrections employees upset by Bertsch’s push to treat prisoners less like caged animals than human beings who will eventually be released back into our communities once their sentences are completed.

Interesting, though, is that of the three critics of Bertsch who were quoted in the article on the record one was a state lawmaker, Rep. Mike Schatz from New England, and another was a prosecutor who works for one of the counties in the consortium.

Nowhere in the article was it mentioned that these men might be motivated in their criticism by their parochialist stance on the New England facility.

It should have been, because it’s clear to reasonable observers that these critics are trying to tap into angst over criminal justice reform from entrenched law and order interests to muddy the waters in the debate over the DWCRC.

The best defense, the old saw goes, is a good offense.

Only this offensive may also succeed in grenading the tenuous progress North Dakota has made toward a better form of criminal justice.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.