Imagine you own a business. Nobody is buying your product and you’re losing money. Despite this, you decide to double down and scale up production. This goes on year after year, and you’re digging an ever-deeper hole. Your stubborn commitment to something that isn’t working is driving your company into the ground.

Who would run a business this way?

The answer is no one. Yet that’s how we’ve been running America’s criminal justice system for more than 30 years. Starting in the 1980s, our country became obsessed with being “tough on crime.” We passed laws that put more people in prison for longer periods of time. The thinking was it would keep bad guys off the streets and scare other potential bad guys straight. With fewer bad guys, crime would go down and our communities would be safer.

Pretty simple, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Sure, more people went to prison, but crime didn’t go down. In fact, in many places it actually went up. So the whole justification for being “tough on crime” wasn’t panning out. But wait, there’s more. In addition to not making us safer, there was another unintended consequence of being “tough on crime” — it was really expensive. At all levels of government, budgets were bursting from the costs associated with mass incarceration. Worst of all, instead of admitting our mistake and changing course, we just kept throwing good money at a bad solution.

Amazingly, however, the worm is turning. We are beginning to realize being “smart on crime” works better than being “tough on crime.” North Dakota has made some efforts to address its growing prison population in recent years, passing reforms in 2017 and taking steps to reduce penalties for marijuana possession in 2019. And those are important first steps. But there’s more to be done.

The ACLU of North Dakota recently released its Blueprint for Smart Justice, a report that outlines the causes of mass incarceration in our state and makes a strong case for a forward-thinking reform agenda that, if implemented, would reduce our prison population by 50 percent and save $125 million by 2025.

Now at first blush, this seems bold, but really it’s rooted in three common-sense reforms:

  1. Send fewer people to prison. This means decriminalizing certain low-level crimes and sending people to treatment and behavioral health facilities when possible.
  2. Get people out of prison faster if they deserve it. This means getting rid of mandatory sentencing laws and creating ways for people to earn time off their sentence.
  3. Keep people from going back to prison once they’re out. This means supporting people who are reentering society and reducing the number of people who get sent back to prison for technical probation violations.

I encourage you to check out the full report at Ultimately, it’s a starting point. We want to work with people across the state — and across the political spectrum — to make North Dakota a safer place to live. We think the reforms in our report do that, and we want to make them a reality.

Our work is guided by a single, overarching mantra — to get better results while also saving money. That’s something we hope all North Dakotans can get behind.

A version of this column also appeared in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.