FARGO — The first thing Adam Martin ever stole was a bouncing balloon from a drug store in Breckenridge, Minn. He says he doesn’t know why he did it. He just did.

“And I got caught. And my dad told me, ‘Today, it’s balloons. Tomorrow, it’s going to be cars,’” Martin said. “I always thought he was just full of it. That’s a big shift. But he was right.”

Martin, now 37, grew up in Moorhead, Minn., and soon graduated to more serious crimes. Almost a decade has passed since the worst of his court docket. But he still remembers small details of the things he did; in at least one instance, getting drunk before scuffling at a bar and stealing a car. A litany of offenses turns up in both Minnesota and North Dakota court records — fleeing police, domestic assault, driving 85 in a 55 zone, writing a bad check, terrorizing, burglary, driving while impaired.

“I think the reason I overcame what I was doing is because, instead of getting sent to prison, I got sent to a long-term treatment center,” he said. That was in 2010.

In 2016, Martin went on to found F5, a Fargo-based organization that helps reintegrate criminals into North Dakota’s everyday life. Some people have the money they need to rebuild their lives. Others, Martin said, have nothing, and still more lack the skills they desperately need to break the cycle of recidivism. His organization helps them find housing, a job and a way back to normalcy. The organization’s name is a double reference to Martin’s felonies, he said, and for a computer’s screen-refreshing F5 key — a metaphor for a fresh start.

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“My vision is that I wanted to build the F5 office where people just feel comfortable that they can walk in here and be like, ‘I’m ready to change,’” Martin said.

Already, the organization offers services to 60 to 100 people every month.

Martin’s work coincides with a wave of criminal justice reforms that have come to North Dakota in recent years. In the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, administrators are increasingly less preoccupied with exacting punishment on prisoners and more concerned with creating good future neighbors — offering volunteer-led astronomy classes or rethinking harsh prison discipline. As many leaders there are fond of saying, most North Dakota felons will someday live next door to someone. How would they like them to behave?

But some of those reforms are also coming as the state’s prisons near capacity, and state’s attorneys worry some changes — like the Parole Board’s increasingly earlier releases, or the Legislature’s generous use of probation — are making communities less safe.

“I think it’s not just limited to pushing that capacity problem onto parole and probation,” Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Haley Wamstad said. “It’s also pushing that capacity problem on to our local jails, pushing that capacity problem onto our local treatment centers.”

Like Wamstad, advocates like Martin say that one of the best prescriptions for that problem is more resources.

“I think the argument of, ‘We’re moving the problem down the river’ — I think there’s some legitimacy to that,” he said, referencing a shift some see from crowded prisons to crowded parole and probation caseloads. “(But) I’ve always been a believer that we need to move up the river. So prevention, working with kids in the juvenile detention centers. Working with kids in the alternative schools, or … in the foster care system.”

‘We need more’

One of the starkest examples of that gap is in the state’s resources for drug offenders. Martin said he sees a wide range of offenders — violent ones, sex offenders and more — “(But) the ones that we see repetitively are drug offenders.”

“And nine out of 10 times, it’s because they start to build up their lives, but then they start dealing with stuff emotionally or mentally or not knowing how to take care of those issues,” he said.

One driver of crime — and significant drug issues — is the growing opioid crisis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s latest data showed 9.2 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 in North Dakota in 2017, — far lower than the national rate of 21.7, but still the second highest year on record.

According to the North Dakota addiction counselors’ state licensing board, the number of licensed counselors in North Dakota has hovered at roughly the same point since 2014, oscillating between 371 and 436 through 2018.

Kurt Snyder, executive director of the Heartview Foundation — which has multiple addiction treatment facilities in North Dakota — pointed out that a portion of those are administrators, not practitioners.

“I think that the short answer is yes, we need more,” he said. He pointed out that state counseling resources like Free Through Recovery have helped significantly, as well — launched by the Legislature in 2017 to the tune of $7 million and renewed and expanded in 2019. "The longer answer is that, I believe that in the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of silos, where addiction was a siloed service — we see so much more collaboration (now) ... so there is a real joint effort on the part of local and state authorities to address this issue. That helps, without a doubt.”

The North Dakota State Penitentiary is pictured July 15. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
The North Dakota State Penitentiary is pictured July 15. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

‘Time is life’

But resources don’t always reach everyone. Enget, the Mountrail County state’s attorney, said the state has failed to help rural addicts. What little local resources there are for drug rehabilitation is mostly concentrated in nearby Minot, creating “two classes” of offenders: the urban dwellers who have a shot at help, and the rural ones who live a long drive away — if they even have a driver’s license. In his county, with a population barely surpassing 10,000, the problem is pressing.

“If we’re going to talk about this justice reinvented, we need to talk about the entire justice reinvented — not just ‘we’re going to divert them from prison,’” Enget said. “Sometimes you may not hear prosecutors say this, but these are people. These are human beings. And if we want them to be good citizens of our city, our county, our state, then let’s start treating them like human beings.”

“In the business world, they say time is money,” Enget added. “Well, time is life, in this case.”

Wamstad, the Grand Forks County State’s attorney, sees the solution in more local resources.

“If we’re going to expect our local communities to be addressing and rehabilitating and punishing these people that have committed these very serious crimes, we need to make sure that our local probation officers, parole officers, jails, treatment facilities — the list could go on and on — we need to make sure that they have adequate resources before these folks are being pushed back to their home communities,” she said.

Martin agrees. He said it’s almost as if patients in need of treatment need to check at least one of a list of boxes — insurance, or wealth, or even just a criminal background — to get treatment. That’s why he feels F5 services are so important.

“But trying to get people to see that, they’re just like — so you want to give drug addicts free services? Or you want to give felons free services?” Martin said. “No, I don’t want to give free services. I want to help people. You know what I mean?”

Editor’s note: This series, sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and the Grand Forks Herald, aims to answer questions at the difficult intersection between budget crunches, criminal justice and the well-being of North Dakota’s communities. As rising prison populations stress the state’s corrections system, how will state leaders address what some say is a risk to public safety?

Saturday: How corrections officials manage North Dakota’s criminals

Sunday: The political sea changes that built North Dakota’s prisons

Monday: North Dakota’s other housing problem

Today: Is North Dakota’s criminal safety net too thin?

Wednesday: How will North Dakota balance budgets and criminal justice?

To view more stories in this series CLICK HERE.