Compassion Could Ease Crowding in ND Jails

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West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan says the state of North Dakota isn’t doing its part to help people struggling with addiction and mental illness avoid life behind bars.

Reitan says addiction or mental illness can lead to a life without hope, spent shuffling in and out of jail.

But he says focusing more on the person and less on the crime, can help people escape the dangerous cycle, and reduce the number of people behind bars in North Dakota.

“Well certainly mental illness or chemical dependencies cause people to commit risky behaviors,” says Chief Reitan.

But he says that path too often leads to jail, ignoring a problem that could be fixed.

He adds, “That level of service is essentially to lock the person up.”

Nate Medhus is the CEO of ShareHouse, a substance abuse treatment facility here in Fargo.

He says, “Ever since the early 80s we’ve criminalized a lot of drug activity.”

Both men agree that treatment should be considered as an alternative to jail where inmates would contribute to a larger problem.

“In North Dakota, the state prisons are overflowing,” adds Medhus.

ShareHouse does its part, helping dozens work to overcome addiction every day. But officials say the government should do more to help addicts instead of locking them up.

“There really wasn’t a crime that was committed against another individual in society,so I’d like to see a review of sentencing guidelines and alternatives for, again, nonviolent and drug–related offenses,” says Medhus

Medhus has approached state lawmakers about adopting telehealth treatment to reach patients in rural areas. But a major problem remains: attracting addiction counselors to the region.

He explains, “If we want to expand the opportunities for treatment for people that live in North Dakota, we need to expand the workforce, and what can we do as providers to incentivize people to come here?”

If treatment can take the place of incarceration in some cases, Reitan says it could help some other pressing issues in the region.

The Chief says, “If we can address that issue for them, help them into recovery, they can return to society, and maybe our labor shortage here in the Red River Valley would be lessened.”

Prison crowding is a nationwide problem.

In fact, the federal government just released 6,000 non-violent inmates to help reduce prison populations.

Chief Rietan says he’s concerned those people could end up back in jail without a support structure to help them now that they’re free.