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Criminal justice reform advocates run for local offices in Fargo

Shannon Roers Jones, running for Fargo mayor, and Adam Martin, a candidate for Cass County Commission, are both vocal advocates for criminal justice reform.

A view from above inside the Cass County Jail
The Cass County Jail in Fargo is seen in this 2007 photo.
Forum file photo
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FARGO — Two advocates for criminal justice reform in North Dakota are making a run for key positions in local government in 2022, and both say they intend to continue that work if elected.

Shannon Roers Jones, a state legislator, attorney and real estate agent, is a candidate for Fargo mayor.

Adam Martin, CEO of the non profit F5 Project and a five-time convicted felon, is a candidate for Cass County Commission.

City races will be decided Tuesday, June 14. The primary election for county races will be held June 14, with the top two candidates moving on to the Nov. 8 general election.

The two have worked together on failed attempts at bail and mugshot reform and on decriminalizing smaller marijuana crimes.

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Other bills sponsored by Roers Jones that have passed include an expansion of the state’s needle exchange program and a bill that set civil penalties for entities that publish mugshots, then try to extort money from people who ask for them to be taken down.

Roers Jones didn’t say how she would continue her advocacy role — only that she’ll keep at it.

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Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, presents a bill to the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 16, 2021.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

“Of course, I'll continue this work as mayor because there’s more work to do,” she said, adding common-sense reform will keep communities safe while not creating barriers for those who reform their lives.

If elected mayor, Roers Jones could legally stay on as a state legislator, according to the state Legislative Council.

She still has nearly three years left on her current term and has previously said she’ll decide at a later date whether or not to keep that legislative seat.

As for Martin, he said criminal justice reform doesn't mean he’s trying to get people out of prison.

“It means that we just need a more appropriate system to respond to violent offenders versus drug addicts,” he said.

Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner opposes most of the reform measures that have been put forth by Roers Jones and Martin and would like to see the pendulum swing back to being tougher on crime.

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“The criminal seems to have become the victim. Law enforcement has been frustrated with this direction,” Jahner said.

Not everyone needs to be locked up

Jahner, along with Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski, spoke out against a bill in January 2021 that would have eliminated bail for most misdemeanor crimes.

The bill’s aim was to keep people charged with minor offenses who can't afford bail out of jail, so as to prevent an unintended downward spiral in their lives.

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Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner speaks alongside Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, at a community meeting about a proposed bill that would eliminate bail for most misdemeanors. David Samson / The Forum

Jahner and Zibolski addressed a North Dakota legislative committee and an informational meeting at Fargo City Hall, saying the bill could mean fewer defendants show up for court dates and present more danger to victims and communities.

Zibolski was asked by The Forum to weigh in on the candidacies of Roers Jones and Martin and their criminal justice reform views, but he decided to “respectfully decline.”

Roers Jones said those who endanger the community need to receive appropriate penalties, but not everyone who comes before the criminal justice system needs to be locked up.

“Doing so is a burden to taxpayers and doesn’t properly address the root causes of crime, which often include addiction and mental health challenges,” she said.

If conflicts should arise between her and law enforcement over criminal justice reform, she would rely on communication to work through them, Roers Jones said.

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Fargo City Commissioner Arlette Preston said she isn’t sure how much criminal justice reform can be accomplished on the local level.

Preston, who is challenging Roers Jones, Hukun Dabar and incumbent Tim Mahoney in the mayoral race, supported a hate crime ordinance passed by the city last summer that imposes additional penalties to crimes of bias.

The city recently filed its first hate crime case for prosecution — a simple assault charge against a man accused of using a gay slur and punching a gay man at a Fargo bar last fall.

Some wondered if the ordinance represents a bypass of the legislature, but Preston said it shouldn’t be a concern if the law is stricter than state law.

“I would assume we could probably do things tighter than what the state says, but not looser,” she said.

As for bail reform, Preston said she thinks it’s discriminatory that someone who can afford bail can be released, while someone who can’t afford it has to sit in jail until they get a hearing.

A risk assessment, supported in the past by Zibolski, is a better approach, she said.

If a person can post bail but they’re at high risk for fleeing or not showing up for court, they would remain jailed until a court date.

“That makes a lot more sense to me,” Preston said.

'Opportunity for all sides'

Adam Martin pleaded guilty to five felony charges in Cass and Clay Counties during the 2000s, when he was dealing with drug and alcohol addiction and untreated bipolar disorder, he said.

Most of the charges resulted from a vehicle theft and break-in at a company from which he’d been fired for poor work performance and showing up late.

“It was just a drunken escapade,” he said.

Adam Martin, director of the F5 Project, talks about his experiences with school suspension and expulsions.jpg
Adam Martin is a five-time felon who went on to start the F5 Project in Fargo, a nonprofit that creates opportunities for people who've been incarcerated. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

He was also charged with domestic assault related to a drunken altercation with a stepfather and faced a felony terrorizing charge after threatening a former roommate.

That roommate had been around Martin’s young son and failed to disclose he was a child molester, Martin said.

Martin also lost custody of his children for a time due to his substance abuse problems.

Once he got the help he needed, Martin was able to rebuild his life and start F5, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for people who’ve been incarcerated.

“I had a community that believed in me enough for me to finally believe in myself,” he said.

As a county commissioner, Martin would not have oversight of the Sheriff's Department or the courts.

However, since he's dealt with the courts and child protection services firsthand, he thinks he can be helpful on the human services side.

Martin said he decided to run for Cass County Commission after hearing reports of a toxic work environment in the county social services department.

He said he thinks he can “create a different perspective and a safe environment for people to grow and change.”

Martin said he hopes people in law enforcement can see his candidacy as an opportunity.

“An opportunity for all sides, not just one side,” he said.

A previous version of this story misstated when Cass County races will be decided. The primary election for county races will be held June 14, with the top two candidates moving on to the Nov. 8 general election.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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