Over 24-hour period, every person booked at Grand Forks Correctional Center had been there before

Apr. 13—GRAND FORKS — For a 24-hour span Wednesday, every single person booked into the Grand Forks County Correctional Center had been there before.

"Not a single one was their first time here," Administrator Bret Burkholder told the Herald Thursday morning, April 11.

Burkholder, who has more than 30 years of experience in the criminal justice system, said he is seeing a concerning trend of rising recidivism rates.

In 2023, the GFCCC documented a 74% rate of recidivism, defined by the National Institute of Justice as "a person's relapse into criminal behavior." Over the past three decades, Burkholder said, it has been common to see two out of every three inmates return to custody. So to see an increase from the 60th percentile to the 70th percentile, he says, is "statistically significant."

The rate of recidivism in Grand Forks County reached 75% during the three-year span from 2020 to 2022, but fell slightly last year to 74%. However, the data for those COVID-era years was likely skewed by the pandemic, Burkholder said. Many defendants who would traditionally be held at the jail until bond was set were not taken into custody at all.

Undoubtedly, statistics show recidivism rates in the county have been trending upward. The correctional center began tracking rates in 2014 (65%), and in most years there was between a 1-2% increase. There have been decreases over that span, but rarely. And when they do occur, they only are in 1% increments.

It can be difficult to compare recidivism rates across jurisdictions because many studies use different criteria, Burkholder said. At the correctional center, for example, any form of reincarceration is considered recidivism.

"That can be a new offense, it could be probation revocation or even parole (revocation)," Burkholder said. "We don't have the ability to look at the reason they have been brought back into the system — only that they have returned."

The correctional center assesses recidivism from present dating back to 2011, when the statistical Jail Management Software became available.

"If I could look back further, the recidivism number would rise slightly, but 13 years of data would likely make it statistically insignificant," Burkholder said.

Rising recidivism rates at the GFCCC are especially concerning

due to overcrowding issues — particularly for female inmates, who have one pod in the facility, with 46 beds and a functional capacity of 37.

In 2023, the average female inmate population per day was 53.32, an all-time record for the facility, Burkholder reported. An ongoing expansion project will offer some relief; however, if inmate numbers continue to climb at the current pace, further expansions may be necessary sooner than anticipated, he said.

Although the county's recidivism rate is concerning to Burkholder, it's not necessarily unique.

In 2021, the Bureau of Justice Statistics published its first recidivism study with a 10-year follow-up period. State prisoners released in 2008 across 24 states were tracked until 2018. During that time, 82% were arrested at least once and about 61% returned to prison — either for a parole or probation violation or an entirely new criminal case.

Preventing recidivism is a complex issue because preventing crime itself is a complex issue, Burkholder said.

"There are a large number of factors that influence someone's involvement in the criminal justice system," he said. "As it pertains to recidivism, I don't know that I could point and say, 'this is a cause,' because there are multiple."

Burkholder suspects a person's social environment may affect their likelihood to reoffend. If their family and friends are involved in the criminal justice system, it can be more difficult for them to stay out of it.

"They may be disassociated briefly when they're incarcerated, but where do they go when they're out?" Burkholder said. "I'm not implying that family and friends are always a catalyst but, at times, they can be."

However, Burkholder believes one factor is guaranteed to cause recidivism.

"If someone has a drug addiction, I will see them again," he said. "There's no question about it, because they're an addict. You can't lock someone up like that for four months and think, 'OK, now we've solved their addiction.' No, we haven't."

Burkholder and Grand Forks County State's Attorney Haley Wamstad agree drug offenses are among the main crimes they observe in the community.

On Tuesday, April 9, two of eight people booked at the GFCCC were charged with drug-related crimes (25%). On Wednesday, April 10, four of 17 booked were charged with drug paraphernalia possession (23.5%).

Wamstad began working for the county as a prosecutor in 2008, when she handled civil commitment cases for mental health and substance abuse treatment. The issue has been clear for some time, she said, but certain factors have caused it to mount.

"I think the substances that we're seeing in our community are

far more powerful

than most we've historically seen, so it's more difficult to treat," she said. "I think, also, the prevalence is at a level we haven't seen before."

The Legislature in recent years reduced the offense levels for a number of drug crimes. Though the switch was well-intended — allowing people to be treated within their communities rather than being sent to the state prison — there just aren't enough local resources,

Wamstad said.

"When I first became a prosecutor, it wasn't unusual for us to sentence somebody that was addicted to substances to the state penitentiary because they would get very good, intense (and) secured treatment for their addiction," she said.

That doesn't happen nearly as often anymore, for a number of reasons, Wamstad said. Some drug offenses have been reduced to misdemeanors, which have maximum one-year sentences. Generally, sentences one year or shorter will be served at the local correctional facility.

Additionally, overcrowding is an issue in jails across the state, as well as within the state prison. As a result, many inmates are being paroled before their sentences are completed, Wamstad said. The resources inmates are receiving while in custody then decrease.

"The full process can never be completed in a jail setting," Burkholder said. "Any treatment program an individual with an addiction will go through is not going to be completed in less than a year."

Instead, what's done in custody is the initialization of the treatment process, with hopes that when an inmate is released, they don't return to their old routine, he said.

Once someone is out, there is little to no control over what happens to a person, Burkholder said. Some serve time on supervised probation, but with many offenses being reduced, not everyone with a drug conviction will have that supervision.

Additional resources — not just for treatment, but also for prosecutors, parole, probation and correctional officers — won't erase addiction, but will better equip the community to handle the issue when it arises, Wamstad said.

"Addiction is a very complicated thing, but I think the more resources that are available, we can certainly do a better job at ensuring that these folks won't be coming back into the criminal justice system," she said.