Democrat Eric Rinehart of Highwood is taking on incumbent Republican Michael Nerheim of Gurnee in the race for Lake County state’s attorney.
Q. Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election for the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you? If so, what?
A. Over the last 17 years of practicing law in Lake County, I’ve seen that we need to do a better job of protecting communities and being fair to everyone.
As a husband and father, my family’s safety is the most important thing. When violent crime is increasing, and the office is losing cases it should win, a change is needed — regardless of political party. I will reform a legal culture that is more interested in preserving personal loyalties than enacting good public policy or requiring excellent legal work.
Critically, this office has never fought against racial profiling. In 2018, African-Americans were 10 times more likely to be arrested in Lake County for a marijuana charge than a white person. My opponent has been silent about these types of injustices. Indeed, he has never reconciled this office’s history of wrongful prosecutions by implementing clear policies or by changing the personnel who were involved.
I believe the office needs to be drastically more transparent, and I would publish crime statistics and have open meetings with all advisory panels. I will work tirelessly to decrease violent crime, to end racial profiling, and to open an office that has been too secretive.
Q. If you are an incumbent, describe your main contributions. Tell us of any important initiatives you’ve led. If you are a challenger, what would you bring to the office and what would your priority be?
A. We cannot reduce crime or police misconduct if we do not measure it and publish the data. It is unacceptable that the current office does not aggregate local crime data or publish crime data on its website. Trump’s Department of Justice is 18 months behind on national data, and even that data is not localized or published by my opponent.
We will publish up-to-date statistics about arrests, depositions, and police misconduct on the website. We must decisively tackle the domestic violence epidemic in Lake County that Mr. Nerheim has left untreated. Instead of having some of the youngest prosecutors handling domestic violence cases, my office will utilize some of the most experienced prosecutors. We will establish a survivors’ panel and follow Marsy’s Law, unlike the current administration.
We will streamline our court calls by reducing the prosecutors present for status dates, and we will deploy prosecutors into the field to meet with survivors. Survivors will no longer have to take time off from work or school to meet with us.
We will increase diversion programs to assist young people and massively expand our mental health and drug treatment courts to reduce crime in the long run.
Q. What crime should be the office’s top target. Drugs? Gang violence? Child sex abuse? Something else? Why? What steps will you take to address the priorities as you see them?
A. Murders and sexual assaults are up in Lake County over the last eight years, according to the Department of Justice and Lake County Jail. These crimes of violence have risen because the current office has never prioritized fighting them in the short term or the long term.
Prosecutors spend hours in court updating judges when they should be meeting with survivors of crime, witnesses, police officers, and lab personnel. We will streamline court-time, assign more prosecutors to violent cases, and meet with witnesses in the field to quickly obtain video statements.
But the problem is not just inside the courthouse. This office has never worked with community leaders in an effective way to address the underlying causes of gang violence or used violence interrupters, which have been incredibly successful in other areas.
We will form a violent-crime task force to work with law enforcement, church leaders, and community groups to get to the heart of the problems. For those cases that do make it to our courtrooms: our courtrooms will be filled by the best attorneys who will not make the mistakes of the past, such as those that led to Mr. Nerheim losing a massive case against numerous gang leaders.
Q. Describe your position regarding the allocation of resources in the state’s attorney’s office. Are personnel allocated as they should be? Are there capital expenses or other budgetary items that the office must address, and if so, how do you propose to address them?
A. Fighting sexual predators and other violent criminals with the latest technology will be a top budgetary priority. Currently, there is an unacceptable backlog in forensically analyzing vital evidence, such as laptops and cellphones.
Instead of understaffing such a vital mission, Lake County should be a beacon for state-of-the-art technology. We should emulate the Northern Illinois Regional Crime Lab and establish ourselves as a regional crime lab for the forensic cyber analysis. I would ask all levels of government to fund a new lab with sufficient employees to meet this critical need.
Few things are more important than accurately and swiftly bringing sex offenders and child abusers to justice in the courtroom. To this end, we must upgrade our computer technology and increase personnel to end the backlog. Over the last six budget cycles, the office has spent too little on computers, and the resulting delays are slowing down the search for truth in our courtrooms.
I would also increase funding for the Child Advocacy Center and for the training of lawyers with respect to preserving discovery, preventing false confessions, implicit bias, and handling of domestic violence cases.
Q. Name one concrete program you’ll create or personnel move you’ll make to improve efficiency in the office or make it more successful. Explain how it will be funded and how you’ll overcome any obstacles to initiating it.
A. First, we will expand the number of lawyers assigned to violent cases and sex cases. We will streamline court time so that lawyers can be in the field preparing for trial. Second, we will have full-time lawyers working on our diversion programs and in our wrongful conviction unit — unlike the current office that has one part-time attorney assigned to each of these important jobs. It’s going to take several full-time attorneys to reverse this office’s mistakes.
Third, we will install a supervisor to oversee all rehabilitation programs, including treatment programs, expungement, diversion, and probation sentences. This will ensure the execution of a consistent rehabilitation philosophy. Fourth, I will end the practice of having so many supervisors in the criminal division. These supervisors are, for the most part, overpaid (in terms of their administrative duties that can be handled by myself and my first assistant.)
These changes would be cost-neutral as they would involve reassigning salaried lawyers that are already fully funded by the budget process. In light of COVID-19’s pressures on our tax base, it’s important to keep our personnel costs at the same funding level.
Q. Among the many issues brought to the fore by the national Black Lives Matter protests is the occasional unwillingness by government prosecutors to bring charges against police officers who have been accused of a crime. Does the office need to do more to investigate and prosecute allegations of police abuse particularly against minorities? If so how if not why not?
A. Mr. Nerheim had eight years to name this problem. He has not to this day. This office has failed to solve the critical issue of institutional racism and implicit bias. I will dramatically increase the amount of implicit bias training among office employees.
I’ve created a comprehensive plan to restore local accountability for police misconduct. We need to begin a countywide program to end racial profiling. We need up-to-date statistics that show the race of all individuals who interact with the police so that we can determine the scope of the problem on the streets.
We need up-to-date statistics on how cases are being resolved so that we can determine the scope of the problem in the courthouse. We need to be transparent about police misconduct records. My community advisory panel will publicly meet with residents and bring reports to me. I will be open and transparent about those instances in which we charge officers with crimes and those instances in which officers have committed constitutional violations. While we have to train officers better, we also have to report to the public when the mistakes occur — unlike the current office, which releases no statistics on this issue.
Q. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, going forward, do you see needed staffing or equipment improvements/reductions/changes? Does/will how services are provided have to fundamentally change as a result? What do you suggest?
A. We should make no sacrifices with respect to resources that are used to fight crime and to enhance our ability to win trials. COVID-19 has shown that we must engage in long-term planning and that economic issues affect our families, our schools, and our safety.
With this in mind, I will continue to focus on fighting violent crimes as a top priority, and unlike my opponent, I will send yearly reports to the Lake County Board, and the public, that show the taxpayers’ return on investment with respect to the reduction of crime.
We have to be realistic about the economic challenges that COVID-19 has brought to our families and to our revenue streams. I was disappointed to hear that my opponent would not engage in voluntary short-term furloughs of some of his employees that would have saved jobs for other county employees in the future. The furloughs were recommended by the budget experts to prevent a very difficult decision by the board to institute a 1.15 percent cut in the payroll for all.
But my opponent refused to listen to these budget experts. I would lead by example and work a few days a year unpaid if that was necessary to save the jobs of others who would be paid less than me.