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Duluth drug court changing hands, but mission continues

Over the past decade, Judge David Johnson has spent two or three hours every Friday afternoon meeting with a group of criminal defendants struggling with drug addiction.

t4.27.18 Bob King -- 050218.N.DNT.DRUGCOURTc2 -- Judge David Johnson gets hugs from drug court probation officers Kim Radloff and Dan Erickson during a celebration of his tenure Friday afternoon. Johnson had been the presiding judge of the South St. Louis County Drug Court for more than a decade. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
t4.27.18 Bob King -- 050218.N.DNT.DRUGCOURTc2 -- Judge David Johnson gets hugs from drug court probation officers Kim Radloff and Dan Erickson during a celebration of his tenure Friday afternoon. Johnson had been the presiding judge of the South St. Louis County Drug Court for more than a decade. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Over the past decade, Judge David Johnson has spent two or three hours every Friday afternoon meeting with a group of criminal defendants struggling with drug addiction.

He has welcomed approximately 200 participants into the South St. Louis County Drug Court, and he estimates that he has handed out about 175 graduation certificates to those who have achieved sobriety and remained law-abiding.

Johnson has seen participants find employment or go back to school. He says at least 15 babies have been born without drug dependency over that time.

"Everybody that's in this program, the participants, they're good people," Johnson said. "They're just struggling."

On Friday, it was the judge's turn to "graduate" from drug court.

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Current and past participants and the team members who oversee their progress gathered in Johnson's courtroom to celebrate his tenure as he steps away from the region's oldest treatment court.

Johnson is turning the weekly meetings over to Judge Jill Eichenwald, who is the newest member of the Duluth bench but brings extensive experience with specialty courts to her new role.

"It's emotionally exhausting because you get so invested in these people, and you just want to see them do so well," Johnson said. "When they struggle, you struggle. It's just so hard. So yeah, it's probably time to let somebody else take over and run it because after 10 years, it's time."

The drug court provides an alternative to prison for defendants considered to be a high risk of reoffending. It involves intensive supervision and frequent court appearances, with the judge and a team of probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and treatment providers tracking each participant's progress over time.

The Duluth program is among the oldest in the state, having officially launched in 2002 as treatment courts began to surface as an alternative to traditional methods. Johnson has served as the presiding judge for more than half of that time.

Jonathan Reznick, a drug court graduate, returned for the Friday ceremony. Like many past participants, he was comfortable engaging in some good-natured ribbing with the judge - evidence of the bond that can develop between the judge and a participant through their weekly meetings.

Reznick, who served in the Navy, said he shares an added connection with Johnson, a retired Marine colonel who served stints at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan.

"Everything you did to serve your country - in my opinion, none of that work compares to what you did with the drug court program," Reznick told the judge. "You saved my life. You saw something in me that no one else did, and for that I am eternally grateful."

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St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin called Johnson a "credit to the criminal justice system."

"I always admired his level of caring for people," Rubin said. "He's got a great combination. He cares deeply but he's not afraid to be stern and strong when he needs to be."

Johnson was quick to deflect credit for the success stories, praising the team around him. However, he said it's been rewarding to watch people escape addiction and "get back to a regular, normal life."

The judge said he decided to step away as he had recently hit the 10-year mark with the treatment court and because the 6th Judicial District is in the process of overhauling its court calendars and re-assigning duties to judges.

That's the official answer. Unofficially, the judge added: "This is really exhausting."

"Jill is going to come in, and she'll have a different perspective," he said. "Different will probably be good. She's a great judge, so there's no worries."

Eichenwald, a judge since late 2015, said she jumped at Johnson's offer to take over the drug court. She has been involved in treatment courts throughout her career.

"It is always the highlight of my week," she said.

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Eichenwald served on the South St. Louis County DWI Court team during her time as a public defender, and since her appointment to the bench she has served in a backup role to Judge Shaun Floerke. Earlier in her career, she was a law clerk to Judge Carol Person, the original presiding judge for the drug court.

Eichenwald said that while judges usually only see defendants on bad days, treatment courts establish frequent positive interaction and allow the court to celebrate successes.

"You get to watch people make changes in their lives that make them healthier and happier and productive," she said. "There's nobody who goes into doing criminal justice work - whether you're a judge or a lawyer or a police officer or a probation officer - who comes in here with anything other than wanting to make things better for people."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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