BISMARCK, North Dakota — Wyoming and North Dakota do not share a border but do share some definitive traits — wide open spaces, a largely rural population, energy booms and busts and staunch Republican control of state government.
Until recently, they also shared a problem with prison growth. Wyoming’s prison beds are maxed out. The state is paying to send inmates to privately run prisons out of state and to house them in county jails.
North Dakota has been there. Its prison growth was relatively flat for years. Then a host of new felonies were written into state law in the 1990s. The Bakken oil boom followed, bringing a rise in crime that drove the numbers of incarcerated people way up, according to Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
A few years ago, North Dakota’s prison population was growing faster than nearly every other state in the country, according to research by the Council of State Government’s Justice Center, a group currently studying Wyoming’s justice system. The state population grew by 18 percent during the Bakken boom, which is generally considered to have begun in 2006 and lasted until 2014, Bertsch said. The prison population grew by 250 percent during the same period.
Wyoming hasn’t seen that kind of population growth but it has seen a similar spike in imprisonment. In 1980, one out of every 878 residents was incarcerated, according to Wyoming Department of Corrections data. By 2016, it was one out of every 244.
But while Wyoming’s justice system remains in crisis, North Dakota is righting the ship. In just over one year, from February 2017 until August 2018, the state cut its prison population by 123 inmates, according to CSG. Prison releases now exceed prison admissions.
The difference can be attributed to a variety of criminal justice reforms, pursued aggressively in North Dakota by Bertsch and others.
In 2017 the North Dakota Legislature passed a monumental criminal justice reform bill. The new laws brought sentencing reform, softened criminal statutes for drug crimes and created alternatives to incarceration, just for starters.
The drop in prison population began immediately after and so far is exceeding CSG’s projections. The researchers had estimated a 36 percent drop in prison population by 2023. That drop would save the state $64 million over that period and keep 467 people out of prison.
With its rewrite of the laws, the state reordered its criminal justice priorities — away from punishment and toward rehabilitation.
The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation took $7 million it would have had to spend on new prison capacity and invested it instead in a program to help people on probation and parole succeed.
The program, called Free Through Recovery, is an experiment in bolstering a rural state’s stretched-thin mental health and substance abuse treatment system, not with more clinical professionals but by tapping into the lived experience of recovering addicts, ex-convicts and faith leaders. It’s an attempt to reweave a broken safety net with the materials at hand. Clinical treatment is expensive, and building a network of either state-run or contracted private treatment services in rural areas carries significant costs — when it’s possible at all.
“Seven million wasn’t going to fix that honestly,” said Sara Friedman with the Council of State Governments, who was observing North Dakota’s implementation of Free Through Recovery and other reforms until this fall.
“They were looking for other ways to make sure people had support even if the clinical network wasn’t there yet,” she said.
The program is targeted at those on probation and parole, where slipping back into patterns of addiction often leads to reincarceration.
Free Through Recovery has tapped into some already existing recovery networks. Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs already rely on helping others as a tool for one’s own recovery. The state is also relying on faith-based organizations to serve as care coordinators, a role small-town churches have in many ways always played.
In a large, rural state with a dismal network of substance abuse treatment centers, Free through Recovery is a patchwork fix. The specialists are far from licensed clinical psychologists. But they’re there, hanging onto and preaching sobriety in areas where the substance problems are and the treatment centers are not.
It’s too early to tell whether the program will work in the long term, participants told WyoFile. Critically too, some warn that it is too early to tell what the overall effect of reforms on the crime rate will be, though research in other states has linked justice reforms and reduced crime.
But there is evidence that already fewer people are failing probation and parole through drug and alcohol violations. CSG tracked an 8.4 percent decline in prison admissions for drug and alcohol since a 2016 peak — though along with Free Through Recovery, reduced sentences for drug and alcohol that may have also kept people out of prison.
North Dakota’s challenges will sound familiar to observers of Wyoming’s decade-long struggle with justice reform. Wyoming policymakers have long recognized that a lack of behavioral health services in the state is an obstacle to building a justice system that accomplishes more than warehousing offenders. Prosecutors and judges are hesitant to support alternatives to incarceration in part because they do not think offenders will get the treatment they need to avoid endangering themselves and others.
At the same time, offenders failing the conditions of their probation or parole are helping to drive Wyoming’s prison crisis. Last year the majority of prison admissions — 54 percent — came from offenders failing on probation and parole, researchers from the Council for State Governments studying Wyoming’s criminal justice system found. The majority of those offenders failed not because they committed substantive new crimes but for violations of the conditions of their supervision — missing meetings with parole officers, falling behind on restitution fines or failing drug tests.
Those problems ultimately are driven by a failure to stay sober upon release from behind bars. Jails and prison offer a chance for addicts to sober up. Ideally, they also offer treatment programs to those inside, something Wyoming’s Department of Corrections has focused on despite budget cuts.
Parolees and probationers often struggle to access similar services. Instead, they slip into old destructive patterns that lead them right back behind bars. Experts in criminal justice call it the “revolving door” of the prison system, where the same people travel in and out of cells, driving up costs and stunting progress toward a cleaner, safer society.
At a September meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee, the Council of State Government researchers suggested lawmakers consider solutions like North Dakota’s.
Keeping probationers and parolees sober and on track is a targeted way to stem the growth of Wyoming’s prison system by reducing the number of violations, they said.
With financial assistance from the Solutions Journalism Network, WyoFile sent this reporter to North Dakota to examine the Free Through Recovery program.
Other aspects of North Dakota’s criminal justice reform package are proving effective and will likely be considered by lawmakers when the Wyoming Legislature convenes in January. But none address the vexing, persistent and long-lamented problem of treatment services as directly, or innovatively as Free Through Recovery.
WyoFile spoke with participants at all levels, from bureaucrats in Bismarck to recovering addicts participating on both sides of the program, to see what’s working and what is not.
The results of that reporting will be published over the course of this week. The first story, which continues below, outlines the system at the state level and gets the take of its advocates in Bismarck. It also provides a portrait of peer support.
Later this week WyoFile will focus on a single rural town facing a seemingly endless battle against drug and alcohol addiction. The report examines what the peer support specialists there — all of whom have fought their own battles for sobriety — are doing to stem it, and what their experience suggests about the strengths and weaknesses of Free Through Recovery.
Leading lady in recovery
Asked what’s required to make a program like Free Through Recovery work, several officials in Bismarck repeated the same answer: Strong state-level leadership.
On Nov. 7, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum and First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum affirmed in a public ceremony their commitment to the program.
North Dakota’s capitol building is art deco in style and stark in appearance, particularly when the snow is swirling as it was on the day of the governor’s ceremony. In place of a rounded dome, a 21-story executive office building rises above the halls of the Legislature.
In a broad hallway leading to the Senate and House chambers, public health and criminal justice professionals mingled with current and would-be peer support specialists. A peer support specialist is a blend of a spiritual counselor, nagging parent, taxi driver, confidant and wise older sibling according to program participants. Simply put, it is someone to lean on.
Free Through Recovery establishes and funds two levels of support for people who are released into probation and parole. The program is coordinated by the state’s Department of Human Services in conjunction with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Participants ask to join the program when they get out or, in some cases, are nudged into it by probation and parole officers.
The first level of support is a care coordinator. According to Pamela Sagness, director of the Department of Human Services’ behavioral health division, a care coordinator is the participant’s first point of contact and has four goals for his or her client — recovery from addiction, stable housing, stable employment and positive interactions with law enforcement.
The state pays $400 a month for each offender a care coordinator manages. The care coordinator may help arrange housing as the offender assimilates back into society and make sure he or she can get where they need to be, which may mean providing transportation themselves.
They might buy their client a pair of steel-toed boots so that they can take a job that necessitates one. In such instances the state reimburses the care coordinator.
A peer support specialist — the second level of support — is also arranged by the care coordinator. Some roles of the two positions overlap. Peer support specialists also give rides and help with housing. More distinct is the role peer support specialists play when it comes to maintaining sobriety, largely by offering their own experience as a guide.
The eight peer support specialists interviewed by WyoFile were all recovering addicts. Their stories ranged from tortured alcoholism to hardcore drug use. One specialist is a former dealer who used intravenous drugs for 13 years. Some have been sober for many years. Others still measure their sobriety in months. Some may share a parole officer with their client.
The governor — a former Microsoft executive said to be bringing an entrepreneurial mentality to government — spoke to the gathering about the recovery network and how he hoped to build on it.
Peer support specialists, he said, are among the most “cost effective” ways to provide support to those in need of counseling throughout North Dakota.
Four hundred dollars per offender per month,“that’s not one day of treatment” at a substance abuse clinic, Sagness said. Few people recover from addiction with just one day in treatment, she added. There’s an additional $80 bonus for successfully achieving the four goals of care coordination each month to incentivize care coordinators, she said.
Though the Burgums have supported the entire reform effort, the Free Through Recovery program appeared to have a special place in their hearts on Nov. 7. That’s largely because the state’s leading lady is a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 15 years. She chose to tell her story publicly shortly after her husband took office.
A former corporate marketer and human resource professional, according to news reports, Helgaas Burgum has made reducing the stigma around addiction her goal while living in the governor’s mansion.
“She stands as a voice and face for recovery,” the governor said to introduce her.
Before becoming first lady, Helgaas Burgum told the crowd, “I wanted to be working to help people that were struggling with addiction related issues.”
Now she does so on a statewide stage, she said. “For someone like me to have this opportunity is kind of like nirvana, to be able to wake up every day and focus on the issues that can really help people in our state.”
Though they may not live in the governor’s mansion, many of North Dakota’s newly anointed peer support specialists would likely agree with her.
Reweaving a safety net
On Oct. 28, a Sunday, Sam Kardos rode a bus into Grand Forks, a college town of 57,000 on the Minnesota border. Kardos, 34, had just been released from prison system after serving a 3-year sentence for robbing a gas station. Kardos had drunk a half-gallon of vodka before committing the robbery, he told WyoFile. He was desperate after a friend’s overdose and had been turned away from a treatment center, he said.
Kardos drank, used drugs and had “been an addict,” since he was 12 years old, he said.
“It was probably not the most ideal way to get help but I got it,” he said of the robbery, saying that at the time he had around $500 in cash on him and didn’t need the money.
Prison, “it’s a good spot to get cleaned up,” he said. “But the real work starts when you leave.”
Now, he was out and on probation. That night, he checked into a Grand Forks homeless shelter.
Debra Camperud met him the next day. She is Kardos’ care coordinator. Kardos was cold, he said, and Camperud brought him a sweater and jacket.
Over the next few days Camperud drove Kardos to Job Service North Dakota, an employment agency, so he could begin picking up temporary jobs. Providing rides to those recently released from incarceration, who rarely have transportation, is an act that does not require training or certification beyond a driver’s license, but is something that participants in Free Through Recovery said makes a big difference in a rural state.
“I’m driving all the time,” Camperud said.
On the same night that Kardos met Camperud, she also introduced him to Tad Wagner, who would serve as his peer support. Wagner, 52, has been sober since July 2017 and his parole officer nudged him into becoming a peer support specialist. Wagner met Camperud and Kardos at the homeless shelter and the three went out for a cup of coffee.
Both Wagner and Camperud described Kardos as motivated and dedicated to staying clean and rebuilding his life. He has clear goals, Wagner said.
Kardos lived in the shelter and worked through the employment agency nearly every day for a week.
Then he met the first big challenge. Kardos had an altercation with another shelter resident. Though Wagner says it wasn’t his client’s fault, both men were ejected. Kardos was on the street. An old friend couldn’t give him a place to sleep, Kardos said, but did hand him a small bottle of vodka. He drank it.
It was a moment that both Wagner and Camperud said could easily have snowballed. Facing the North Dakota cold and with nowhere to stay, drinking would be understandable, Wagner said. Hopelessness would be understandable.
The ejection from the homeless shelter could have been the bump that threw Kardos’ recovery off the rails and landed him back in prison.
“But he picked up the phone,” Wagner said. Kardos called in his peer support.
With no other solution at hand, Wagner put Kardos up in his apartment. He is quick to say that this was a unique situation, that he trusts Kardos, and that housing a peer is not something he intends to do regularly.
When you’re recovering from addiction or helping someone else recover or both, you have to focus on what it takes to stay sober now, Wagner said. Make that first mistake and planning too far ahead may be futile.
“That’s all we have is today,” Wagner said. “Tomorrow is the future.”
Kardos starts a full time job managing a pizza shop on Wednesday. Wagner and Camperud are now focused on helping him find housing and Kardos said he hopes have his own apartment by next week. The drinks he took, Kardos said, “I count it as just a little weakness or a stumble.” He went to a recovery meeting with Wagner the next day and put his sobriety back on track.
Without his peer support, however, “I’d probably be either back in jail or doing drugs,” he said.
Tripling those responsible
Free Through Recovery targets people who are considered moderate to high risks of reoffending.
The program has tripled the number of people responsible for a probationer or parolee’s success, said CSG’s Friedman. Where before there was a single parole and probation officer, often with a heavy caseload, now there is also a peer support specialist and care coordinator.
Pat Bohn, director of parole and probation for North Dakota, said the care coordinators and peer supports play another role as well. Parole and probation officers administer drug tests and make home visits. Ultimately, they will recommend whether someone’s parole should be revoked. “There’s an enforcement aspect to it,” he said.
Not so with peer support specialists. If someone slips up and uses drugs, they can tell their specialist and the two can work through it together. Peer support specialists have no obligation to report the mistake back to the office.
Bohn’s officers are still adjusting to Free Through Recovery, he said. There have been growing pains. Some peer support specialists are overly involved, others aren’t motivated enough, he said. If nothing else, communicating with the new partners — usually with weekly meetings — is one more obligation on the heavily-worked officers.
But overall, he said, the program is favorable. It is another tool for P&P officers who ultimately share the same goals — recovery and a better life for those recently released from prison. “We can’t divorce ourselves from that,” he said.
Today, North Dakota has trained approximately 100 peer supporters, said Sagness, the Department of Human Services specialist helping to build the program. The number of people entering the program is growing. At the start they were referring around 22 people a month into Free Through Recovery. Now they’re at around 100 a month, she said.
As such, she expects the program’s costs to go up. For Sagness, the program takes advantages of a rural state’s strengths to combat its weaknesses, she said. Sagness grew up in a rural North Dakota town that had no treatment center, but it had three churches, she said.
The program fees aren’t enough to incentivize clinical providers to join the program, Sagness said. Nor does she think the money the state had would have effectively grown those services into rural areas.
“If we had thrown this money to the clinical providers we wouldn’t have any change,” she said. But to charities and churches that do exist in small towns, it’s a chance to fund and formalize efforts to help people that those institutions are likely engaged with otherwise.
“We have to tap into those natural supports,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you just build on that?”
A look afield shows that Sagness is accurate in her description of Free Through Recovery’s ability to galvanize preexisting networks. Far from the State Capitol, the program is unfolding in communities and among people that have fought their own, more private battles against addiction for years. Though all involved are enthusiastic about the opportunities to help those in recovery, the program is not without challenges.
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.