FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — Washington County could have two new leaders come next year. In the primaries, you’ll be able to vote on a prosecutor and judge for the county.

Candidates were invited to an election forum hosted by the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition and the League of Women Voters at the Fayetteville Public Library Monday night.

About 100 people showed up. They were supposed to hear from all six people running for county judge, and the two people running for prosecutor. While they did hear from both prosecutor candidates, none of the Republican candidates showed up, making it a debate between the Democrats.

“How awesome would it be to have a county judge who has been through every level,” said Democrat Charles Ward on why he wants to run for the position.

He’s a former United States Navy combat veteran who also worked his way up the Washington County Roads Department to become Superintendent. He eventually left the county and started his own business.

“My favorite part of this process has been getting to talk with people I would never have the opportunity to speak with,” said Democrat Josh Moody of the campaign process.

Moody is University of Arkansas business school graduate who eventually became an educator. He spent most of his career teaching in the Washington County Juvenile Detention Center.

The four Republican candidates, Justice of the Peace Patrick Deakins, Sharon Jay Lloyd, Mark Scalise and Tom Terminella, did not show up for the forum.

An anticipated topic for the candidates was the jail expansion.

“With population growth, there’s going to be an issue where you’re going to have to have room,” said Ward. “However, there are programs we can put in place.”

“We have a golden opportunity with millions of dollars in federal COVID relief money,” said Moody. “We can be creative about using those funds to be proactive in creating productive, tax paying citizens instead of warehousing people.”

Both said they don’t think American Rescue Plan funds should be used to fund a jail expansion because federal guidelines say those funds can’t be used for that reason. They have concerns if the county moves forward with using ARP funds to expand the jail, it could cause the county to have to pay that money back.

Both agree that some of the biggest problems facing the county include population growth, attracting and retaining staff in the county departments, and bringing a sense of working together.

On the prosecutor side, candidates Stephen Coger and incumbent Matt Durrett shared the merits of their differing law experiences.

“Experience teaches you lots of things, experience builds partnerships,” said Durrett. “Over the course of 23 years, I have cultivated partnerships that are going to help move the system.

Durrett said he has spent most of his time as a lawyer trying criminal cases. He said he thinks he’s worked about 80 jury trials over the course of his career.

Coger said he spent time working for non profit legal organizations working with low income and immigrant families. He’s also represented human trafficking survivors. He said he doesn’t have any jury trial experience, but does have experience working with and managing people.

“If you want a different experience and a better experience, then you need to vote for someone who has new and different experiences,” said Coger. “The proof is in the pudding and I have seen no proof.”

Both agreed on the need to find ways to reduce our jail population through pre-trial services and drug and mental health courts. However, they differed on their stances on prosecuting juvenile.

Coger said we need to treat kids as kids, and was critical of the 62 times Durrett has charged a minor as an adult.

Durrett said he will continue to charge minors as adults if his office deems its necessary. He said it only happens in extreme and violent crimes. He also pointed out that a judge has the final say on if a minor can be tried as an adult.

They also have different views on charging low level drug offense and marijuana use.

“There’s a lot of discretion and I’m going to use that discretion to drop marijuana charges,” said Coger. “When we put someone in there for recreational cannabis use, that’s a waste of space.”

“I took an oath of office and I swore to uphold the Constitutions of Arkansas and the United States of America,” said Durrett. “It’s not my prerogative to ignore laws that I don’t like.”

This primary will decide who wins the prosecutor race, while in the county judge race, it only decides which candidates will move on to the main election in November.

The primary is three weeks on May 24th and early voting begins on May 9th.