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The problem with felony sentencing in North Dakota

North Dakota's prisons are filling up with low-level offenders, resulting in crowding and recidivism

Law enforcement agencies and lawmakers in North Dakota are looking for ways to decrease corrections spending and prevent repeat offenses. The key may be taking steps to address the state's prison population, which includes an increasing number of low-level offenders.

According to the Grand Forks Herald, judges, legislators and law enforcement agencies recently met with researches from the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Those researchers presented their findings from a review of more than 336,000 court records - and the results were grim for the state's justice system.

Felony sentencings on the rise - but are they effective?

In the wake up North Dakota's oil boom, the state's population is growing rapidly - and, with it, the number of people convicted of crimes. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of felony sentencings roughly doubled - driven mainly by low-level felonies, including nonviolent drug charges.

According to the Council:

  • Class C felonies, the lowest level possible, accounted for four out of five felony sentences in 2014
  • Of those sentences, 76 percent involved jail or prison time
  • Drug charges accounted for 40 percent of all felony sentences in 2014

Individuals convicted of these offenses are rarely in prison for long, and may have other risk factors - such as addiction or insufficient probation supervision - that lead to repeat offenses. Experts at the Council and throughout the criminal justice system believe that drug treatment, employment and rehabilitation could be more effective at keeping these offenders from ending up back in prison.

What does this mean for people charged with low-level felonies?

While no substantive changes have been made yet, we can hope that this conversation leads to much-needed reforms in the justice system. If you or someone you love may be facing criminal charges, however minor, it is ALWAYS wise to speak with a criminal defense attorney about your rights. The right representation can mean the difference between prison and freedom.

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