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Surbeck wins national award for excellence


The National Center for State Courts is giving Allen Superior Court Judge John F. Surbeck the William H. Rehnquist Award.

The award is given annually to a state court judge to recognize judicial excellence. According the National Center for State Courts, the William H. Rehnquist Award honors judges who are taking bold steps to address a variety of issues affecting their communities.

The award recipient is recognized in the fall during an award ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court. The award highlights the judge’s work to provide model programs for court systems throughout the United States, according to the national center.

Surbeck started Indiana’s first Re-Entry Court and is considered a nationwide pioneer in re-entry courts. Surbeck confirmed Monday he will be given the award.

The award will be presented in November by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts during an evening ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last year’s Rehnquist award winner was Justice James F. McHugh of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

“Judge Surbeck is an inspiration and an example to everyone who works in the justice system. He has accomplished what most of us set out to do with our lives – he’s making a true difference in the lives of others,” National Center for State Courts President Mary C. McQueen said in a written statement.

“Those who work with him, refer to Judge Surbeck as a pioneer and a trailblazer in the field of re-entry courts. I would add that he’s also a proven leader for the nation’s court community when it comes to integrity and judicial innovation,” McQueen wrote.

Appointed to the bench in 1988, Surbeck started the Re-Entry Court program when few other courts were doing so. At the time, only one in Mansfield, Ohio, was fully operational, he said.

The idea for the court – which allows violators to be released from prison early, but then subjects them to closer monitoring than ordinary parole or probation – grew out of discussions then-Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard had with local and federal officials about how to combat crime.

“It’s like so many things, it started as coincidence” Surbeck said, “circumstances all coming together at once.”

The program reduces recidivism among those who have already been in prison by about one-third, Surbeck said.

Allen County Re-Entry Court’s recidivism rate is about 30 percent, compared with 60 percent of all former prisoners nationally, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Since Allen County’s program began in 2001, Surbeck has regularly shared the workings of the program with other courts and has made a recent trip to China to talk about it.

More than 600 participants have graduated from the program.

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent E. Dickson nominated Surbeck for the Rehnquist award and then called him later to congratulate him and inform him of the award.

“I have been overwhelmed,” Surbeck said. “I can’t think of anything original to say other than I’m honored, and overwhelmed and just stunned. It’s an extraordinary honor.”

In his letter nominating Surbeck, Dickson noted Surbeck’s influence on the courts.

“Judge Surbeck has made a tremendous and long-lasting impact on the courts of Indiana and elsewhere and has brought fresh ideas and a proven track record to the seemingly intractable problem of recidivism,” wrote Dickson and Lilia Judson, executive director, Division of State Court Administration.

Surbeck’s colleagues are also happy.

Allen Superior Judge Fran Gull said that those who work with him have long known about Surbeck’s passion for the work he does, and for his program.

“He’s a dedicated public servant,” she said. “It’s nice to see him get the recognition he deserves.”

According to a statement, the National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts.

Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Warren E. Burger, chief justice of the United States, the center provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation’s state courts.