DeKrey: An Argument Against SB 2107 North Dakota’s Flawed Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Bill

Mandatory minimum sentences, a term used to describe a set minimum amount of time that a judge must impose for a particular crime, have been a topic of much debate and criticism in recent years. Despite the growing body of research proving the inefficacy of mandatory penalties, North Dakota’s Attorney General, Drew Wrigley, remains committed to pushing North Dakota backwards by passing antiquated mandatory minimum legislation.

Here’s why this matters:

It’s A Huge Cost To Taxpayers

Mandatory minimum sentences are incredibly expensive, both for the criminal justice system and for taxpayers. The cost of maintaining a large prison population, providing healthcare and other services to incarcerated individuals, and funding rehabilitation programs can be staggering. These costs divert resources from education, healthcare, and other programs that are essential for reducing crime and improving public safety.

The bill introduced in North Dakota will cost taxpayers approximately $28.2 million over the next 5 years, according to state prison experts.

Why Does It Cost So Much?

  • It causes prison overcrowding. Mandatory minimum sentences result in an explosion in the number of incarcerated individuals, and also lengthens how long each individual spends in prison. This results in overcrowding and ballooning incarceration costs. North Dakota will need more facilities, staff, and resources – and taxpayers will foot the bill.

  • Prisoners require basic things like healthcare. Incarcerated individuals, like all of us, require medical care, and the cost of providing this care can be substantial. Again, the cost of healthcare for prisoners is borne by taxpayers and can divert resources from other essential services, such as education and public safety.

  • Takes away from proven tactics like rehabilitation programs. In many cases, mandatory minimum sentences do not provide opportunities for rehabilitation, education, or job training, which are essential and proven ways of reducing recidivism. Instead, they focus on punishment and long-term incarceration, which can increase the cost to taxpayers without providing the necessary tools to prevent future criminal behavior.

  • Undermines the criminal justice system. Mandatory minimum sentences can also increase the cost of the criminal justice system, as they result in more appeals, longer trials, and higher legal fees. This can result in higher costs for prosecutors, public defenders, and other components of the criminal justice system, which are ultimately funded by taxpayers.

Mandatory Minimums Don’t Reduce Crime

In the past two decades, numerous studies have challenged the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. Here’s a list of all the recent studies that have been done on mandatory minimums and recidivism rates:

  1. University of California, Berkeley Study: In 2015, UC Berkeley launched a study questioning whether mandatory minimum sentences were an effective way to remove dangerous criminals with a high propensity to offend from society. What they learned is that mandatory minimums result in the over-incarceration of less active and dangerous offenders, and therefore displace more active offenders from scarce institutional resources in the process. In other words, mandatory minimum sentences make the public less safe by wasting expensive prison resources on the wrong people.

  2. RAND Corporation Study: In 2011, the RAND Corporation studied the effect of mandatory minimum sentences on recidivism. The study found that mandatory minimum sentences had little effect on reducing recidivism and that other factors, such as substance abuse treatment and community supervision, were more effective in reducing reoffending.

  3. Bureau of Justice Statistics Study: In 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics studied the effect of mandatory minimum sentences on recidivism. The study found that mandatory minimum sentences did not reduce recidivism and that other programs, such as substance abuse treatment and education, were more effective in reducing reoffending.

  4. National Research Council: In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences studied the effect of mandatory minimum sentences on recidivism. The study found that mandatory minimum sentences had limited impact on reducing recidivism, and that lengthy sentences are an inefficient approach to preventing crime, unless they can specifically target high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders.

These studies and others provide strong evidence that mandatory minimum sentences are ineffective in reducing crime and recidivism. Instead, this strategy focuses only on punishment and long-term incarceration, regardless of context, proportionality, or criminal history.

Mandatory Minimums Haven’t Worked In Other States

Over the past two decades, more than 30 states have reformed or repealed their mandatory minimum sentences, while still maintaining public safety.

For example, Louisiana repealed many of its mandatory minimums in 2017 and saved $12 million in just the first 6 months. This decrease in the state’s prison population led to reinvesting the savings into crime-reduction and victim support programs, which contributed to a lower crime rate and a prison population not seen since the 1990s.

Similarly, in 2015, Pennsylvania’s many mandatory minimum sentences were declared unconstitutional and crime rates continued to decline, even as the state’s prison population decreased from 2012 to 2018.

Michigan’s experience is also noteworthy, as the state repealed almost all mandatory drug sentences in 2002, which was followed by a 27% drop in the crime rate in the decade after the reform.

These examples illustrate that reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences can be beneficial to public safety, while also providing cost savings that can be reinvested into other crime-reduction programs.

Preventing draconian mandatory minimum laws does not mean that people will not be punished or imprisoned – it means courts won’t have to imprison people indiscriminately, without considering factors that matter.

North Dakota legislators and constituents need to ask themselves why Drew Wrigley is hellbent on passing initiatives that have proven to not only be ineffective, but also cost state taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Is it ego? Future political aspirations? Or simply a lack of research and knowledge on the topic?

Whatever the answer is, one thing’s for sure: this bill is wrong for North Dakota.

The above article is a guest post submitted by Dane DeKrey of Ringstrom DeKrey Criminal Defense 

Tyler Axness
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