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Leann Bertsch: Promoting Humanity Through the Power of Persuasion.
By Charles F. Field, Jr.
Published: 02/19/2018

Iic leannbertsch banner The following article is the first in a series titled "Innovators in Corrections" which focuses on people and their ideas that move corrections forwards.

Few career corrections professionals can lay claim to gaining international notoriety as the subject of an article in Mother Jones magazine (an American magazine that focuses on news, commentary, and investigative reporting on topics including politics, the environment, human rights, and culture). The article, entitled “North Dakota’s Norway Experiment,” described the impact of a visit to a maximum-security prison in Norway in 2015 by Leann Bertsch, Director of North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR).

Bertsch was left shaken by her tour at the facility described by Time as “the world’s most humane prison.”

“We’re hurting people,” the article quoted Bertsch as saying, comparing Norway’s so-called “dynamic security” approach to confinement conditions in U.S. prisons. In Norway, solitary confinement is rarely used, guards are encouraged to interact with inmates, and, in this particular prison, housing units are comprised of private rooms that resemble college residential housing.

When Corrections.com interviewed Director Bertsch, she bristled at the suggestion that her State was trying to be Norway, a country she believes to be 20 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of its approach to corrections and rehabilitation. “We're not trying to be Norway. We're trying to take the best practices of really progressive systems, and apply them in North Dakota, and we've had some great success.”

From JAG to Director of Corrections

Much of Bertsch’s success can be attributed to a well-honed power of persuasion. Entering her thirteenth year as Director, her balanced approach to corrections and rehabilitation is part “law and order,” part heart-felt empathy for both uniformed staff and the incarcerated.

The “law and order” side of her character comes from 21 years served in the Nation Guard – “a family tradition,” she says - retiring as a Major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in 2007. She enlisted in the Air Guard but switched branches to the Army Guard as a JAG to avoid nepotism (her older brother was also a JAG in the North Dakota Air Guard). Serving in the military exposed Bertsch to many different styles of leadership and command. “It's very structured,” she says, “policy procedure driven, relying heavily on strategic planning, much like corrections.”

In addition to her military service, Bertsch worked as an attorney for Legal Assistance of North Dakota, and later, as a state prosecutor for eight years.

When Bertsch moved over to DOCR in 2005, she confesses that initially, she missed the courtroom, but quickly found that her power of persuasion was just as important in front of a legislative committee advocating for minimum mandatory sentencing reform and public safety matters as it was in front of a jury pursuing justice. “Trial attorneys need persuasive skills. But in my position as director, I learned the importance of building relationships with key policy makers - earning their trust - and, the importance of having integrity by always giving them accurate data and information and being open and transparent.”

Selling Lawmakers on Change

Bertsch is strong voice for criminal justice reform in North Dakota. As a prosecutor, she disagreed in principle with minimum mandatory sentencing. She believes that the discretion for sentencing belongs with the judiciary and should not be left up to ambitious prosecutors. Progress has been made in the State, peeling back minimum mandatories through the State Legislature.

“I think that there's some more work to be done in that area,” she suggests. “We share data and work closely with our lawmakers who then champion the reforms. They are always looking for the most cost effective way to ensure public safety.”

Bertsch and her team have been effective at demonstrating to lawmakers how taxpayer resources are directly impacted by sentencing practices that are overly reliant on imprisonment.

The boldest reform advocated by Bertsch with the greatest impact on the State budget has been its Inmate Prioritization Plan (IPP). Endorsed by the governor and legislature, the IPP recognizes that correctional resources are finite, and the State can't afford the expense of building itself out of inmate overcrowding (the State’s inmate population grew 32% from 2005 – 2015). It provides the DOCR with the authority to prioritize (once maximum operational capacity and the appropriated level of contract housing is reached) who enters the system. Violent offenders are given top priority.

“The legislation that gave us the authority to prioritize who enters our facilities was also provided to the local authorities,” Bertsch explains. “They told jail administrators, county commissioners, sheriffs, prosecutors, and judges that they also had to create an inmate population management plan.”

Norwegian Influence: Promoting Humanity

The department’s stated mission is to enhance public safety, to reduce the risk of future criminal behavior by holding adult and juvenile individuals accountable, and to provide opportunities for change. Bertsch’s expressed goal upon her return from Norway was to strengthen the DOCR’s commitment to its mission by promoting and encouraging humanity within State facilities as a primary focus of each and every employee.

“Public safety is best served when people come out of our system less violent and less likely to re-offend,” says Bertsch. “We have to show these individuals how to be decent, upstanding human beings, and our employees have to model that behavior. That means being more human, less rigid. That means encouraging more interactive relationships between our correctional officers and incarcerated individuals to build skills that will serve them well upon release.”

One of the challenges of change at DOCR has been developing the tools and training for correctional officers. The system is currently re-designing its training programs, tripling the length of time required to complete the curriculum. “We have to put more resources towards our uniformed staff,” insists Bertsch, “They’re not just guards. The role they’ve taken on in our facilities requires a higher-level skill set and the confidence to do their jobs effectively. They should also be paid in parity with other public safety officials that don’t work behind the walls of a prison. I think that would go a long way towards alleviating tremendous workforce issues and high turnover, and I think it would go a long way towards job satisfaction and increased staff wellness.”

Not all of the State’s uniformed staff is happy with the change. Many are ex-military and more comfortable with maintaining safety and security through a more traditional punitive approach. “This is a big change for them,” Bertsch says. “We’re at a crossroads where we’ll continue to move forward and make progress in how we recruit, hire and train.”

As the outgoing President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Director Bertsch counts industry associations as invaluable resources. “We shouldn't have to all make the same mistakes, right? I'd rather learn from someone else's experience or mistake, about what not to do,” she explains. “We share best practices. For example, an issue might start in one part of the country, and because we share that information, we're better able to deal with it when it comes to our state.”

Bertsch recognizes that North Dakota houses some extremely dangerous and violent individuals, and that the time-tested tools that support a hierarchy of authority should never be discarded. “We still have the ability to sanction and use administrative segregation, even though it's used much, much less in our system today,” she says.

In the two years since the Norway trip, administrative segregation has been cut significantly and is reserved for the most egregious cases when an inmate is violent towards a staff member or another inmate. Uniformed officers in the unit are required to have two conversations a day with the inmate while in administrative segregation.

Should Prisons be Primary Source for Behavioral Health Services?

Like many systems across the country, a large percentage of North Dakota’s inmate population requires behavioral health services. Mental illness and addiction (70% of individuals have significant drug or alcohol addiction) are major challenges in the adult population. North Dakota’s juvenile system is wrestling with the behavioral health problems of young teens.

“It's a failure of our society,” Bertsch says, “when we see some of these individuals that are so damaged from child abuse or neglect. They are the result of the lack of services in some areas of our state. It’s a critical issue.”

In many states, incarceration is the default system for offenders with behavioral or mental health issues. In North Dakota, the Department delivers more behavioral health services than any other entity. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national non-profit organization that guides justice reinvestment efforts throughout the United States, increased behavioral health treatment availability can significantly reduce recidivism and improve public health outcomes.

Director Bertsch is quick to site a study that was conducted as part of the State’s justice reinvestment efforts. “Seventy percent of the judges indicated that they send low risk nonviolent people into the system just to access behavioral health services. It’s sad that someone would have to come in to the criminal justice system to access those services.”

With the savings generated by sentencing reforms (such as the reduction of first-time drug possession charges from a Class C felony to a Class A misdemeanor); reducing the use of incarceration for people who committed low-level felony offenses and who have violated the conditions of their supervision; and the efficiencies gained through the Inmate Prioritization Plan, the state appropriated $7 million to improve the quality of community-based behavioral health services for people in the criminal justice system and an additional half a million dollars to increase the number of treatment providers that are able to serve this population.

Bertsch also wants an expansion of Medicaid to help more offenders pay for drug treatment. Funding services to help offenders outside of prison will save the State money in the long run. “Prison is the most expensive option and research shows community-based options are more effective and less expensive,” Bertsch says.

Reaching into the Community

In sitting with the Director, one thing was evident - she understands the reach of her department. Her efforts are not confined to State correctional facilities, but extend deep into the communities and households. “We have huge impact on every aspect of every community in our state, so when you look at the sheer number of people that come in our system, or on some sort of supervision, we touch every community. When we talk about public safety, we live that. Our stakeholders are the community, the individuals who come through our system, their families, and our staff.”

An experiment may be defined as “a scientific procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis, or demonstrate a known fact.” In some ways, the title of the Mother Jones article belied the persuasive leadership that has been required to gain the trust of key policy makers to affect real change in the criminal justice system in North Dakota. Bertsch’ reliance on accurate data, intuition and power of persuasion has driven a multi-dimensional effort to introduce more humanity to a criminal justice system that, in the past, relied too heavily on confinement.

“We can always improve, and we're always trying to improve.”

Charles F. Field, Jr. is a Senior Writer for Corrections.Com


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