Mercy: Incarceration Reform
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2016

This Holy Year of Mercy provides an opportunity for Catholics to advocate for criminal justice reform at both the federal and state levels.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation. As of 2011, close to 2.2 million people were incarcerated in federal, state or local prisons and jails. Although national incarceration rates have dropped in recent years, the federal incarceration rate has increased 500 percent during the past thirty years, with close to half of those serving sentences for drug offenses.

The situation in North Dakota is even worse. North Dakota's incarceration rate saw a 175 percent increase from 1994 to 2014, which was the second highest increase in the country. Four years ago, the state inmate population was half what it is today and the inmate population is expected to double again in the next 10 years. The inmate population has gotten so high that the state has to send inmates to a for-profit prison in Colorado. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the state’s prison system has doubled during the last ten years.

Catholic tradition supports the community's right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance. Rigid sentencing policies for non-violent offenses have proven to be costly, ineffective, and often detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities. Prolonged incarceration contributes to family instability and poverty. Those who finally leave incarceration face significant challenges upon reentering society, such as finding housing and stable employment, high rates of substance abuse, and physical and mental health challenges.

Normally during a presidential election year Congress does not pass major legislation. Observers in both parties, however, have noted that criminal justice reform could be the exception this year. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed a willingness to start addressing the nation’s incarceration problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified three pieces of legislation it supports. They are:

  • The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123). This is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms related sentences and make those reductions retroactive. It gives judges more discretion and allows many federal prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs in prison. Contact Senator John Hoeven and Senator Heidi Heitkamp to express your support for this bill.
  • Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3713) is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some prisoners. It also gives judges more flexibility in sentencing. Contact Representative Kevin Cramer to express your support for this bill.

  • Second Chance Reauthorization Act (S. 1513, H.R. 3406). This bill authorizes funding for reentry programs that help people leaving prison reintegrate back into their communities in healthy and productive ways. These programs focus on education, literacy, job-placement, and substance abuse treatment. They are often administered by faith based groups. Contact Senator Hoeven, Senator Heitkamp, and Representative Cramer to express your support for these bills.
In North Dakota, the legislature has created an Incarceration Issues Committee to look at the issue. The committee consists of six legislators and ten representatives from the judiciary and law enforcement. They will eventually make recommendations to the legislature in 2017. In the meantime, the state’s incarceration rate will grow in an unprecedented rate.

Any success in addressing the state’s massive incarceration problem, however, may depend just as much on the recommendations of another interim committee. The Human Services Committee is conducting a comprehensive review of the state’s behavioral services. Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s incarceration boom has corresponded with a falling behind in the state’s provision of mental health and addiction services. A study from the last interim concluded that the state’s behavioral services system was “in crisis.” Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stated that the lack of access to behavioral health services is a problem leading to incarceration and to the inability to reintegrate non-violent offenders back into society.

Investing in mental health care and addiction recovery costs money, but so do prisons. North Dakotans may have to decide whether they want to voluntarily pay for a better system of behavioral health services now or be forced to continue to fund an out-of-control system of incarceration. In this year of mercy, let’s choose the former.