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Before starting law school, I worked as a legal assistant and part of my job involved working with indigent criminal defendants.

My eyes were opened to the problems with the “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality. Too many of the people we see on the local news are in and out of the criminal justice system because they are lacking a support system and resources to help them re-enter society.

Support systems and resources are conducive to success after incarceration. While it seems the legal community is aware of this, options and solutions have been limited in North Dakota. But, the F5 Project is changing that.

I first heard of F5 from a client who was trying to get situated back into the community after finishing his sentence. At that time, F5 was thriving in the Fargo area and starting expansion efforts. It has proven to be invaluable across the state and specifically in Bismarck.

If unfamiliar, the F5 Project was started in 2016 by Adam Martin, a former inmate who realized the lack of services available once released from prison. F5, named after the refresh key on a keyboard, helps felons start over by helping them find safe and affordable housing, employment, and transportation.

The line of communication is started during incarceration for many, with F5 hosting frequent jail meetings across the state. F5 is now active in Bismarck, Minot, Devils Lake, Grand Forks and Fargo.

Martin believes the criminal justice system is just part of the solution when it comes to crime. The other part -- engagement.

“With the system and our people working together, I believe we not only enhance our community’s ability to become vibrant with workforce and families, but we also create safer communities based on grace,” Martin said.

Of course, not every criminal is ready to start over in life. The choice to seek assistance and change is entirely personal. But, it is crucial for communities to have resources, like F5, ready to assist someone who makes the decision to better herself.

Posts from Martin and the F5 Project frequently appear on my Facebook newsfeed, and it is remarkable to see the many success stories of people turning their lives around. It also makes me proud to see so many local businesses and community members support the efforts of F5. North Dakota was ready for criminal justice reform, and F5 has demonstrated the value of restoration.

Martin calls helping others “magic for the soul,” and there must be an immeasurable amount of magic within him.

If you want in on some of the magic, there are various ways to help. Aside from monetary support, you can donate things like household supplies, cars or professional attire. You can mentor F5 participants or speak at jail meetings. You can employ and teach skilled trades to F5 participants. But least of all, give grace and show support to community members who are working hard to start over. It will only make this community a better place.

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Katie Winbauer, a Bismarck native, is a law school student at the University of North Dakota. She serves as the president of the North Dakota Student Media Association and is an advocate for student press rights. Winbauer has been a local speaker for the March for Our Lives movement and also works closely with Invisible Innocence.

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