An Isanti County judge who is a nationally respected pioneer in drunken driving preventative programs is retiring after 30 years of service to the state of Minnesota.
Judge James Dehn, who has been chambered in Isanti County since taking the oath of office on June 26, 1987, is retiring after exactly 30 years of service, on June 26, 2017.
Dehn is looking forward to his retirement.
“My wife, Kathy, and I are both very excited about this,” Dehn said. “We just bought a new RV and have trips planned to drive out to Anchorage and Disney World, and are looking forward to spending more time with our children and seven grandchildren.”
On June 29, Dehn will receive an Alumni of Notable Achievement award from his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. He was nominated for the award by his judicial law clerk of 27 years, Valerie Anderson.
“Judge Dehn is a kind compassionate boss, just as he is a kind compassionate judge. He always treats everyone in the courtroom respectfully, whether they are the attorneys, court personnel, litigants or defendants. He loves to connect with people. I think he is leaving a great legacy,” Anderson said.
“His staggered sentencing program has touched so many people’s lives in very positive ways,” Anderson said. “The amazing successes people have through his staggered program have saved many lives. Not just the lives of those who would have been victims of drunk driving but the lives of the defendants themselves as they have turned to positive changes in their lives, making improvements that make them productive members of society and great sober family members and friends. His slogan-poster contest is fun and always has a great message for the kids. He has loved having high school students visit his courtroom over the years and always would take a break during court to talk with them and explain the legal process. He is very involved with the high school Mock Trial program at all levels and enjoys seeing it to completion each year at the national level. His involvement with Safe Cab and tracking the ‘last place of drink’ has benefited so many people throughout the state.”
In 1993, Dehn became the first judge in the nation to put multiple-repeat DWI offenders on the home pre-trial electronic alcohol-monitoring program. Under the program, reoffenders awaiting trial have an electronic monitor placed in their homes requiring frequent sobriety checks.
This program led to Dehn receiving the Outstanding Judge Award by the Minnesota District Judge’s Association in 2000; the National MADD President’s Award in 1996; and was recognized in the Wall Street Journal on May 24, 1994.
Dehn appreciates the working relationships he has had with all different members of the community.
“I’ve worked with such great people during my career, from the law clerks, court reporters, probation, Department of Corrections, county attorney’s office, court administration and law enforcement,” Dehn said. “Isanti County has truly been a wonderful place to work. I am really going to miss the people.”
Dehn is very honored to be receiving the Alumni of Notable Achievement award from the University of Minnesota.
“I was just a poor kid from Minneapolis whose dad was disabled and just worked my way up a couple jobs at a time,” Dehn said. “I was the first in my family to attend college. That’s where America is still a great story. You truly can accomplish great things by working hard and meeting wonderful people.”
In 2006, Dehn worked with community leaders and business owners to establish the Isanti County Safe Cab program, which reduced DWIs in the county by more than 67 percent by 2013 – the largest decrease of any county in Minnesota. The Safe Cab program has served as a model for other counties across the state as it has just reached its 25,000th rider. Dehn helped create the nonprofit Minnesota Safe Ride, which has launched the Safe Cab programs in Pine, Kanabec, Chisago, Sherburne and, most recently, Mille Lacs counties.
As a result of Safe Cab, Dehn received various state awards from MADD in 2014 and 2006 and Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Star Award in 2009.
Isanti County Judge Amy Brosnahan first met Dehn when she appeared in front of him as an assistant attorney for Kanabec County at a hearing in 2004.
“He was then, and remains, joyful, helpful to litigants and supportive of those with whom he works,” Brosnahan said. “When I arrived as a judge, he provided a great combination of both support and independence – an example I hope to share with his successor. He will definitely be missed.”
Lee Munnich, senior fellow with the State and Local Policy Program of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs from the University of Minnesota, is director of the national Center for Excellence in Rural Safety and has worked with Dehn on public safety endeavors.
“Judge James Dehn has been a national leader in addressing the problem of traffic deaths and serious injuries caused by drunken drivers,” Munnich said. “Judge Dehn started by keeping track of the bars where drivers charged with drunken driving in his courtroom had their last drink. He then brought in the bar owners to show them the statistics of how many drunken drivers had their last drinks in each bar. Judge Dehn followed up by working with the bar owners in Isanti County to develop a Safe Cab program that provides a free ride home to customers who have had too much to drink. Judge Dehn has promoted this program in other counties in Minnesota and nationally.”
Dehn has been tracking DWI offenders’ “last place of drink,” for nearly 20 years, the longest-running judicial tracking program in the country. The information collected through this effort has supported training of restaurant employees and served as the groundwork for the Safe Cab program.
Isanti County Toward Zero Deaths coordinator Bob Bollenbeck has been working with Dehn for more than 20 years on public safety efforts.
“His direct involvement has had a huge influence on the development of local programs relative to traffic safety. He initiated the Isanti County Safe Cab program and Minnesota Safe Ride Inc. development where Safe Cab has made a huge difference in reducing DUI incidents in Isanti County since its inception in 2006,” Bollenbeck said. “His willingness to be a leader and advocate on the Isanti County Toward Zero Deaths coalition has made a tremendous positive impact, including utilizing his poster-slogan contest in schools locally. I have the most respect for Judge Dehn and pleased to have worked with him.”
Loren Davis, who serves as chairman of Minnesota Safe Ride, received MADD’s Greater Minnesota Public Safety Representative Award in 2011 after being nominated by Dehn.
“I first met Jim in 1989 when unfortunately I was on the side of the bench I didn’t want to be on. After we were done, he met with me in his chambers and told me to continue my community service here in Minnesota and stay active as I was in Illinois,” Davis said. “Little did I know 10 years after that we would be working on the Safe Cab Program together. He has done wonders for Isanti County and the surrounding area on the subject of making the roads safer for all with his work on both the TZD and Safe Cab Programs. He also has brought his knowledge of the Safe Cab Program nationwide through his numerous talks around the country concerning his DWI tracking and staggered sentencing. It’s been an honor to know and work with him. He has worked with many people my wife, Peggy, and I have come across that needed some direction through the court system.”
Isanti County Sheriff Chris Caulk first met Dehn when he arrived at his house in the middle of the night to get a search warrant signed.
“Of course we joked about getting him up in the middle of the night, but he was always good for that late-night warrant,” Caulk said. “In my position as sheriff I have appreciated his participation in Toward Zero Deaths and Safe Cab. We have done radio interviews together, which of course is always fun. I have appreciated our partnership over the years and have enjoyed the laughs that we have shared over the years. From the Isanti County Sheriff’s Office, we wish him the best in his next chapter.”
In 1998, Dehn pioneered the DWI staggered sentencing program, which allows repeat DWI offenders to spread out their actual jail sentences over several years. If offenders are able to prove they are staying sober and law-abiding, they become eligible to have the next segment of their jail sentence suspended. The practice is now used in approximately 30 states. In 2002, the Research Department of the Minnesota House of Representatives found DWI offenders given staggered sentences experienced 49.9 percent less DWI recidivism than comparable DWI offenders. A similar study conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association in 2011 found staggered sentences reduced DWI recidivism by over 30 percent.
As a result of his staggered sentencing program, Dehn received the Distinguished Public Leadership Award–Center for Transportation Studies University of Minnesota in 2016; the Kevin E. Quinlan Award for Excellence in Traffic Safety from the Century Council in 2013; the Paul H. Chapman Award from the Foundation For Improvement of Justice Inc. in 2003; and was recognized in Time magazine on April 29, 2002.
“The staggered sentencing program has been a powerful incentive to not drink and drive for potential repeat offenders,” Munnich said. “Judge Dehn’s commitment, enthusiasm and sense of humor are infectious and have been important in engaging others, like me, to his cause.”
Dehn helped start the high school mock trial program in the Cambridge-Isanti High School in 1988 and has coached the teams for over 17 years. He has judged at the state and national mock trial competition since 1992. He continues to be on the Mock Trial Advisory Committee for the Minnesota State Bar Association and trains mock trial judges at state and national competitions.
Judge Peter Cahill, from the 4th Judicial District, is the current chair of the Minnesota Mock Trial Advisory Committee.
“Judge Dehn has been a judge at the National High School Mock Trial Competition for over 20 years. At the tournament this year, he and I looked around the room and he was pretty sure he was the longest-serving mock trial judge there. It wasn’t bragging, just a sentimental observation. He is known throughout the country for his dedication to the program and for his always positive and energetic demeanor,” Cahill said. “Whether judging a local tournament in Minnesota or a national round with powerhouse teams, he always asks the audience to applaud at the end of the round in recognition of the hard work the teams put in. Teams love it when they see Judge Dehn is their presiding judge because he is known to be kind and fair. It is evident from everything he does that he loves working with kids and is interested in everyone he meets.”
For his efforts with mock trial, Dehn received the National High School Mock Trial Justice Gene Franchini Golden Gavel Award in 2014, its highest award; and for his efforts with the Minnesota State Bar Association, he received the MSBA 2011 Citizen Lawyer Award.
In addition, Dehn has taught creative sentencing to Minnesota judges for nearly 20 years and has been an adjunct instructor at the National Judicial College in Reno since 2002; has brought thousands of high school students into his courtroom to observe court and instruct them on the third branch of government; and has created and organized a poster-tabletop tent slogan contest for all middle school students in Isanti County since 1999. Dehn received the National MADD Distinguished service award in 2001 for the poster-tabletop slogan contest.
Anderson is going to miss working with Dehn.
“Judge Dehn has touched many lives, including mine, with his positive proactive approach to life,” Anderson said. “I never dreamed I would be working with him for this many years when I first took the job. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with him all these years and will greatly miss working with him on a daily basis.”
Dehn was appointed to the Minnesota Judicial Standards in 2000 and chaired the committee from 2006-2008. Dehn averaged about 7,000 cases per year and also performed weddings and adoption ceremonies.
“I hope people will say I was a fair judge and listened to everyone, and I think I maintained that over the years,” Dehn said. “Everybody is entitled to be heard and to have their day in court. I always tried letting people know that they are important. I would hope people would say I always listened to them and treated them fairly.”