I was all set to hang Rick Santorum out to dry this week when, as usual, someone derailed my chain of thought and sent me in a new direction. This morning, it was Fargo Police Chief David Todd speaking on KFGO Radio. He expressed a concern that took courage to say out loud. And he is spot on.
The state of North Dakota, in its infinite wisdom (not-t-t), has limited the prisoners who will be accepted in the state penitentiary. Because the Legislature rarely sees beyond its collective nose, and because they didn’t know how to budget, the local communities are paying the price. Convicted criminals who should be spending time in prison are instead serving shorter sentences in our county jails, in home detention and too often on probation.
One can criticize the courts, the prosecutors or the defense attorneys for this situation, but that wouldn’t really address the situation. Take defense attorneys out of the equation first. They do what they are supposed to do in representing their clients.
The prosecutors and judges have an entirely different problem. They are caught between the realities of the cost of incarceration, the limitations in housing prisoners after sentencing and the fact the problem has not even (to my knowledge) been discussed recently.
Chief Todd should be commended for having the courage to speak up on this issue. His department apprehends the criminals, as they are charged to do. It then refers the matters to city attorneys or the states attorney. City attorneys are not part of the problem, since their cases remain in Municipal Court and the Cass County Jail.
Instead, the state’s attorney faces an entirely different problem. They have to determine whom to charge, what to charge them with, and — upon plea or conviction — recommend the sentence to the judge. Then the judges have to weigh all of the factors before sentencing.
In his radio interview, Chief Todd referred to a career criminal who was convicted 50 times in 2017 and told investigators he made $200,000 that year selling stolen items, mostly from Walmart and Target. The last time he was convicted, he received just 18 months rather than several years and is likely to be on the street again in seven months.
A repeat offender thief, burglar and nonviolent offender does not deserve this kind of break by default because the state is too uninformed to repair a problem. It is not right that a repeat criminal be given a break just because the state won’t accept them in prison.
If you think of burglary as a victimless crime, you have not been the victim of a burglar. My lake place was ransacked years ago. If it could be moved, they took it — including washers, dryers, electronics. You name it, they took it.
Now visualize someone ransacking your own home here in Fargo-Moorhead! Believe me, that’s a trauma that is real. Those who do this once need their behinds severely kicked by the criminal justice system. When they repeat, they need housing at the State Pen … oh, but the state won’t accept them because they don’t fit the parameters of the kind of prisoners the system is accepting. Instead, they get a short sentence in the county and will soon be on the street again.
I’m sure some plea agreements are being made because of the refusal by the state, resulting in a lesser sentence. The state can recommend a sentence, but the judge is not required to accept it.
Based on what Chief Todd has to say about this sorry situation, and based on my own 40 years on the bench, I hope the prosecutors take a hard-line approach (not saying they don’t) and the judges impose the proper sentences … regardless of recommendations, and regardless of where the prisoner will be housed.
Our judges and prosecutors can shut this revolving door. The scofflaw repeat offender who Chief Todd referenced could have — and should have — been given the maximum. That’s how to show the community and law enforcement agencies that when they do a good job, the criminal will pay a just penalty.
Police, prosecutors and judges all have difficult occupations. When they fulfill their respective roles, we all gain. When they don’t, we all lose.
I am laying the blame for this sorry situation squarely on the state — not the judges, prosecutors and attorneys. Supporting your local police must be far more than just a saying! Amen.