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Duluth DWI court earns national honor

DULUTH, Minn. — The South St. Louis County DWI Court will receive national recognition Friday, May 5, as one of the top specialty courts in the country.

The National Center for DWI Courts selected the Duluth-based program as one of four "Academy Courts" — those deemed to be the most effective in reducing recidivism and saving public money by providing intensive supervision and resources to drunken-driving offenders who are considered at high risk to reoffend.

The four programs were picked from more than 700 DWI courts across the country, according to the NCDC. The news was welcomed by 6th Judicial District Judge Shaun Floerke, who has presided over the Duluth court since it was established in 2008.

"You try to do this work and you want to know that you're having an impact," Floerke said. "This is kind of cool."

The distinction, to be presented at a public ceremony Friday afternoon, will allow the program to serve as a model for other jurisdictions across the country, said NCDC director Jim Eberspacher.

Eberspacher, whose nonprofit organization tracks DWI courts and provides resources to communities to start or improve their programs, said only about 20 percent of jurisdictions across the country have speciality courts for DWI offenders.

"We do our best to get our message out there and educate folks about why they need DWI courts," he said. "Not just because they help people achieve long-term sobriety, but because it's good for community safety and saves money."

The South St. Louis County program is a collaboration between the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, law enforcement and treatment providers. The team works to identify offenders who are well-suited for the program, pairing them with necessary resources and closely tracking their progress.

That allows high-risk DWI offenders to stay out of prison while also requiring that they abstain from alcohol and drugs, seek employment or education and make frequent court appearances.

A study released in 2014 found that public agencies saved $4,814 per participant in the program during a two-year period. The program typically holds about 50 participants, with it taking more than a year to successfully complete the program.

Every five years, that amounts to a savings of $1.8 million, according to the study conducted by NPC Research of Portland, Ore., on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety.

Eberspacher said he was particularly impressed by the Duluth program's evidence-based approach to treatment. The team, for example, brought in a psychologist to address participants' mental health needs and about a year ago divided the weekly court sessions by gender, which research has shown to provide more effective treatment.

Floerke said the priorities of the court have changed since its inception, with the team initially focusing too much on imposing jail time and other sanctions. He said the justice system has often been guilty of attempting one-size-fits-all approaches.

"That's certainly changing," the judge said. "I often liken our work to performing surgery. We've got human beings, and our decisions can positively or negatively affect their lives. If you're going by your gut or a hunch, heaven help you."

Eberspacher said the public has benefited from the group's willingness to take on felony-level offenders who might typically be sent to prison.

"Judge Floreke's court from day one has taken the riskiest of impaired drivers that a lot of jurisdictions would be hesitant to take for the political ramifications or the public safety risks," he said. "What he understands is that those are the people who do the best, who these courts are designed for, and there are no safer places for them in the community than a DWI court."

The Duluth program is being honored alongside DWI courts in Athens, Ga.; El Paso, Texas; and Billings, Mont.

The Academy Courts, chosen every three years by the NCDC, provide guidance and materials to other communities. Representatives from jurisdictions across the country will travel to Duluth in September for a week of observation and training from the South St. Louis County team.

A public ceremony announcing the honor will be held at 1 p.m. Friday in Floerke's courtroom on the third floor of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. Team members and graduates of the program will speak.