Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen
Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen (J. Albert Diaz)

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Cohen worked in an Arabic village in a program aimed at promoting Arab-Israeli peace, co-headed the Madrid office of an international rights group working with dissident activists and wound up under KGB scrutiny as she worked to get Jews out of the Soviet Union.

That was before she went into law.

“I wanted to either go into international human rights work or work in the refugee camps,” she said. “I’ve always been an activist. You can see it in my whole history. In the ’60s I was out demonstrating. I’ve been on numerous marches for all kinds of issues.”

Cohen studied comparative religion and Islamic studies in college, learned Arabic as she got her masters in Arabic studies and language at Harvard, then went to the Institute for Advanced Studies and International Relations in Geneva.

Prison Bribes

After college she got the human rights job in Madrid, until she transferred back to Washington to become associate director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

That took her to the Soviet Union to meet with Jews and dissidents, “bringing in clothes and cigarettes and make up to bribe prison guards.”

After the Iron Curtain fell and Jews were allowed to freely leave the former Soviet Union, Cohen got married and followed her husband’s suggestion to go to law school.

She worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission after graduation. Then the family moved to Miami. She worked as an associate in private practice, then joined the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

Women’s Rights

She continued her activism in her spare time.

“I was very active in women’s rights. I started Women’s Emergency Network, which supports reproductive rights for needy women,” she said.

Then, she said, several women suggested she run for judge. She did, and won a county court seat in 1992. In DUI court, her activist bent took a different turn.

“Everything was handled criminally,” she said, “and it dawned on me that the people in there were really sick. It was sort of like being in an emergency room. But no one was getting better.”

She started trying to address the underlying problems, assigning offenders to treatment programs.

“Lo and behold people in the courtroom started getting better,” she said. “They stopped drinking.”

It started informally, she said, and attracted national attention. The Florida Department of Transportation gave a grant for monitoring recidivist drunken-driving offenders and for linking them to treatment programs.

In 1996 she ran for circuit court and won.

The head of the juvenile division approached her as soon as she was sworn in.

“He told me, ‘I understand that you’re an activist. That you know how to get money. And that you are interested in helping people. … I need you in juvenile court.’ ”

She took what she had learned in DUI court about treatment and addressing mental health issues “and I applied it to what I was doing in family court, and I built one of the first dependency drug courts in the country.”

Managing Addictions

The Miami-Dade team went on to “train hundreds of courts around the country, under the auspices of the Justice Department, on how to set up dependency courts, how to implement them, and how to sustain them,” she said. “And that really became my life’s work. … Working with families and children in order to help them manage their addictions and become good nurturing parents.”

She now splits her time between criminal and family drug courts. Her goal, she said, “is to build it into the absolute best science-based drug court in the country.”

“I don’t ask why are you here. You’re here because you were arrested. Or you’re here because you’ve lost your children. What I want to know is how you got here. What are the genetics involved? What are the untreated mental illnesses? What trauma have you grown up with and are experiencing now, the untreated trauma? I want to know how you got here. And if we know how you got here we can help you so that you can move beyond this. When you leave my drug court programs I want you to have a better life. I want you to be able to sustain yourself in your communities without us.”

The mission of her court affects her style, she said.

“The nature of what I do in the drug courts is very informal. It’s very therapeutic,” she said. “I think that when I’m in the civil division I tend to be more formal. Especially in trial—you want to be very formal, but you can never lose your sense of humor.”

At the same time, she said, “I think I’m tough and most lawyers would say that I’m demanding. That I expect good work. But I’m also fair and I’m willing to listen, and I’m willing to change my mind, and I’m willing to say I’m sorry if I need to.

“I can be tough but I’m compassionate.”