DULUTH – The judge greets the defendants strolling into his courtroom cheerfully, as he does each Friday afternoon. Mingling casually among them in the gallery, no black robe to be seen, The Honorable Shaun Floerke gives each a warm smile.
“How are the kids?” he asks. “What grade does Zoe start?”
“How’s your summer?” he inquires of another, shaking hands.
Floerke has served on the bench in the 6th judicial district for 13 years. But on Friday afternoons in South St. Louis County DWI Court, he seems anything but judgmental. From the moment repeat drunken-driving offenders walk into Floerke’s courtroom, they can tell they are in for something different.
Instead of stern punishment and shaming, defendants gather in a group surrounded by a culture of understanding. The judge and staff aim to act as a support system, helping offenders tackle their addictions while making the roads safer in the process.
“We’re trying to change our thinking from compliance — I will make you — to alliance — I will walk with you,” Floerke explained in a speech to human services workers.
So far, so good. The court recently boasted the highest “graduation” rate of any treatment court in Minnesota, with approximately 86 percent successfully completing the program. Three years after they start, participants had 66 percent fewer new drunken-driving offenses than offenders who went through traditional court processes, according to a 2014 report.
The court now serves as a national role model — one of four selected from 700 DWI courts for an Academy Court award. Last week, Floerke and others held a training session for others from around the country.
While many treatment courts are often led by judges who favor compassion, Floerke “especially takes that very seriously,” said Jim Eberspacher, director of the National Center for DWI Courts, which gives out the awards. “He really strives hard to understand people and really wants to do better for them ... He’s just passionate about the work that he does.”
Frustrated with process
Awards and accolades are an honor, Floerke said, but the true satisfaction comes in seeing people who come into his court change. It’s why he helped start the court in 2008, after feeling frustrated with the usual judicial process.
“It seemed like we weren’t making a difference,” he said. “It seemed like everything was a script: You just do it the same way each time, then scratch your head or blame the person ... for not getting it.”
So he started reading and learning. He studied addiction, the brain, mental illness and motivations for change. And he worked with lawyers and probation officers and treatment professionals to implement individually tailored plans to get at the root of each defendant’s problem.
Addiction is usually formed by underlying pain or trauma that needs to be addressed, Floerke learned. Shaming doesn’t help, he said, but showing compassion does. He noticed that something as basic as “soft eyes” — a welcoming facial expression — can make a big difference in how an apprehensive defendant might respond.
“Soft eyes say to somebody ‘I’m safe. I’m really listening. I’m really here with you,’ ” Floerke said in the speech.
Research also guided the decision to focus on chronic offenders. Most are felons — having four DWIs within 10 years — who were headed for probation sentences. But a few are gross misdemeanor-level drivers who were failing on traditional probation. It was a gutsy move — the public is more apt to support unusual court settings for low-level criminals only.
But research showed that intense supervision and therapy aren’t necessary for most first-time drunken-driving offenders, about two-thirds of whom never get another one.
Floerke and staff analyze the DWI court’s progress, too.
“Keep track of the data and see if it works,” he said.
With less recidivism and incarceration time, state and local agencies saved more than $4,800 per participant during the two years after they enrolled, according to the 2014 report.
Floerke credits the court’s success to the staff, law enforcement officers, therapists and others who are deeply involved in it; Duluth is big enough to have resources, he said, but small enough that people know each other and work together. Before each Friday DWI court session, a group of 15 to 20 people sits at a big conference room table to update each other and discuss each participant.
Focuses on their success
Most defendants coming into the court don’t have a choice about being there, and many are suspicious at first of the unusual approach.
After Floerke chats with them in the courtroom gallery, he runs back to his chambers to “put the dress on” as he calls it, and then sits, robed, behind the bench for the formal court session.
Even that is somewhat informal. As defendants are called to a podium one-by-one, Floerke focuses on their success.
“You’re working your way through a lot of stress,” he told one recently, nodding his head.
“You’re, like, super-solid ... we’re real impressed,” he told another. “We want you guys doing well because it matters to you.”
Everyone, including probation officers, treatment specialists, and local, county, and state law enforcement, is in the room, offering support, and at times, applauding a defendant’s accomplishment.
It’s clear Floerke knows a lot about them. Over time, they get to know a lot about him, too.
Soft-spoken with a casual, Matthew McConaughey-like cadence to his voice, Floerke shares details of his life with defendants as if they were co-workers or friends. They know that he likes to vacation in the Boundary Waters, that he commutes to work on a mountain bike, and that he drives an old car and fixes old cars for his kids to drive.
Floerke often runs into defendants in the community, too. He might see one while he’s walking down the street or at a restaurant or carwash. He and his wife made a home for their five children in working-class West Duluth.
“There’s so much ‘us and them’ in our society,” he says. “It’ll sound hokey, but that’s part of why I live on the west side ... I don’t want to be separate from folks.”
When defendants have setbacks, Floerke exudes understanding.
In court on a summer Friday, one man had said he was embarrassed and ashamed that he’d slipped up and done drugs. The man hadn’t been caught, but had volunteered his transgression to his probation officer.
“Relapse happens. We figure it out. We get back on our feet,” Floerke told him. “You were honest about it. I got no rocks to throw at you.”
The defendant would need to do eight hours of community service, but the court focused on continuing to try to help him change.
Another defendant, Joe Bellows, said Floerke yelped in frustration early this year after Bellows drank while on probation, saying they needed to figure out how to change things. It brought Bellows to tears.
Bellows was hit by a run of bad luck after that: illness, a clunked-out car, a shed fire that destroyed his upholstering business and a burglary. The court helped him navigate it without turning to alcohol, Bellows said. He credits Floerke and staff for caring and his co-defendants for lending an ear when he needs to talk.
A personal touch
Floerke and others on the staff have been known to meet defendants outside the courtroom, too, sometimes showing up at pivotal points in their lives: family funerals, graduations, sobriety feasts.
Once a summer, the DWI court session is moved outdoors to Duluth’s Park Point, where staff and defendants spend an hour cleaning litter from the Lake Superior beach, then share a potluck meal.
Floerke, dressed in a T-shirt and cargo shorts, combed the sand alongside defendants, garbage bag in hand.
“How’s your job?” he asked defendant Emil Green as the big lake’s waves lapped nearby. “How’s your brother?”
Green, 27, didn’t need to be there (his probation was going well), but he came anyway.
“I like to get a reminder as to why I’m staying sober,” Green explained later. “The program works.”
Green said he was leery of the judge at first, but came to see Floerke and the staff and his fellow defendants as his new community — one more supportive than the one he had been living in.
At Christmas, Floerke and a few others from the court team showed up at Green’s house bearing gifts for the nieces Green was fostering.
That personal touch, Green said, has helped him in the long run. “I don’t want to let him down,” Green said. “It’s life-changing.”