#childsafety | Patch Candidate Q&A: Mike Nerheim, Lake County State’s Attorney

WAUKEGAN, IL — Incumbent Republican Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, of Gurnee, will face Democratic challenger Eric Rinehart in the general election. Nerheim, of Gurnee, has served as chief county prosecutor since 2012. Rinehart, of Highwood, is a criminal defense attorney based in Waukegan. Both candidates ran unopposed in their respective party primaries.

Patch sent a candidate questionaire to each campaign. The answers below were submitted on behalf of Nerheim’s campaign and have not been abridged. Early voting begins on Sept. 24 ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3.


Michael G. “Mike” Nerheim

Age (as of Election Day)

My wife Andraea and I are lifelong residents of Lake County and are raising our three children here. I am the youngest of four siblings, reared to be good citizens, independent and hard-working, always willing to do the right thing, to be there for family, friends, and neighbors in times of need and to celebrate in times of joy. We love our community and are actively involved in making Lake County a great place to live, work and raise a family.

Does anyone in your family work in politics or government?

No.

Education

Juris Doctor, Cum Laude, The John Marshall Law School, Chicago, 2000.

Bachelor of Science, double major: Criminal Justice and Psychology, Winona State University, Winona, Minnesota, 1996.

Occupation

Lake County State’s Attorney since 2012. I am an experienced prosecutor and former defense attorney with more than 20 years of experience on both sides of the law.

I began my legal career in 1999 as an Assistant State’s Attorney. I have extensive experience working in all criminal divisions of the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, handling every type of case including traffic, misdemeanor, domestic violence, criminal sexual assault, drug trafficking, gang-related crimes, crimes against children and the elderly, official misconduct, and murder. My in-depth experience includes not only criminal law but also areas of complex civil litigation and municipal law. As a private practitioner, I was appointed by the courts to investigate post-conviction issues and have represented indigent defendants. As a former Assistant State’s Attorney and defense attorney, and now as State’s Attorney, I am respected by the defense bar, victim advocates, and federal, state, and local law enforcement.

I am on the faculty at Columbia College of Missouri where I teach “The Laws of Evidence,” “Ethics in Law Enforcement” and “Victims in the Criminal Justice System.” I host and participate in numerous educational and public safety forums across Lake County. I’m also frequently called upon to lecture nationally on a variety of criminal justice issues, including conviction integrity, gangs, and the opioid epidemic. I am extensively involved in the community leading state and countywide initiatives and serving on the boards of numerous nonprofits.

Campaign website

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Previous or Current Elected or Appointed Office

Lake County State’s Attorney

The single most pressing issue facing our (board, district, etc.) is _______, and this is what I intend to do about it.

The most pressing issue facing Lake County is the proliferation of violent crime spilling over into our community from neighboring Cook County and especially Chicago, as a result of many failed policies in Cook County that enable violent offenders to escape justice. Violent crime, including gang violence, gun violence, and crimes against children continue to be my top priority. I have focused resources by creating a Gang and Narcotics Unit, Specialized Victims Unit, Domestic Violence Unit and a Cyber Unit, and significantly updated the Lake County Children’s Advocacy Center which investigates and prosecutes crimes against children.

I’ve worked with the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy to obtain a High Intensive Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) designation for Lake County, which brings resources to our community to aid in the fight against gang and gun violence. In collaboration with several communities in Lake County, we have applied for funding to implement technology that will detect firearm activity in high crime areas so law enforcement can immediately respond. We have enhanced our Cyber Lab capabilities and have acquired an electronic detection K-9 to aid in investigating and apprehending child predators and other violent offenders. I employ a full-time crime analyst to help our law enforcement partners identify crime trends so we can have the most effective deployment of law enforcement resources. I have established relationships with community organizations and work collaboratively on anti-violence intervention initiatives.

Do you support Black Lives Matter and what are your thoughts on the demonstrations held since the death of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake?

There has been inconsistent messaging from various Black Lives Matters chapters across the country, but their overarching message about racial equality, righting past injustices, and addressing systemic racism is something I support and will continue to address. There have been several demonstrations in Lake County since the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake, with the exception of one evening all of these protests have been peaceful. I wholeheartedly support the right to peacefully demonstrate, but do not support and will not tolerate looting, violence and lawlessness. Not only is this type of behavior damaging to our community, but it also detracts from the real conversation and change that is needed.

What are your thoughts on the campaign to “defund” the police?

I do not support defunding the police. The reality is that the majority of the budget for police departments goes toward salaries and benefits for police officers. Defunding will result in fewer officers on our streets. Many departments are short staffed as it is. In addition to reducing staff, further cuts would also reduce resources needed for training. I support an increase in funding for law enforcement to provide more training in areas of mental health intervention, crisis intervention, implicit bias, and de-escalation. I also support more resources so that departments can provide mental health and wellness services to their officers. Law enforcement officers have one of the highest rates of suicide by profession and more resources are needed. Some police departments in Lake County have been able to employ social workers to assist in their work in the community and to aid both victims and offenders. This has been very successful and I would support the increased use of social workers to supplement the departments in Lake County. There are many social service agencies in Lake County that need funding support as well. In addition, due to budgetary constraints, the majority of police departments in Lake County currently do not employ body cameras. More funding is needed so that every officer in Lake County is equipped with a body camera.

What are your thoughts on the state and national response to the coronavirus pandemic? Do you favor such measures as limiting operation of non-essential businesses or restricting indoor/outdoor dining? And do you favor a nationwide mask mandate?

I am incredibly proud of the way my entire staff has responded to the challenges placed on our operation by COVID-19. From day one of this pandemic, my staff has adjusted to the many changes thrust upon them and has continued to fulfill our mission to keep Lake County safe. Throughout this time, my staff have continued to put themselves in harm’s way and provided uninterrupted service to our law enforcement partners, our clients, and the public. My staff and I have also increased public outreach, especially in at-risk communities. We have adjusted our internal operation to include remote work options for some staff in order to limit exposure to the virus through staff contact.

Science has continuously supported the importance of wearing masks in public settings and social distancing to control the spread of COVID-19. I believe we should follow the guidance of the health experts. The more we do now to curb the spread of the virus, the quicker we will be able to recover and get the economy back on track. Even when a vaccine becomes available, we are going to be fighting this pandemic for a while.

What are the critical differences between you and the other candidates seeking this post?

I bring multiple types of experience and background that distinguish me from my opponent.

I have been both prosecutor and a defense attorney with over 20 years of experience on both sides of the law. The Lake County State’s Attorney’s office is the third largest office in the state and one of the largest in the country. To lead this office requires the experience of having been a prosecutor, and my opponent has never been a prosecutor.

I have management experience overseeing a staff of 140 people and more than $15M budget. My opponent is a private practitioner with no management experience.

I have proven track record of accomplishments and political independence. I have earned the respect of the judiciary, defense bar, law enforcement, social service agencies and the community as a whole.

I have been extensively involved in the community my whole life, not just when seeking office.

Describe the other issues that define your campaign platform

Through my leadership these past eight years, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office is now recognized nationally for our leadership in combatting the opioid epidemic, addressing and preventing wrongful convictions, sexual assault and the abuse of women, domestic violence, gang prosecution, and our leading edge diversion programs. Another major aspect of my campaign platform is that I’m not political nor is my office. I’m highly respected on all sides and have been able to successfully work with legislators and elected officials from both parties to address issues such as the opioid epidemic, criminal justice reform, juvenile justice reform, teen vaping, and protecting the environment.

What accomplishments in your past would you cite as evidence you can handle this job?

When I was elected State’s Attorney in 2012, I responded aggressively to address and prevent wrongful convictions, tackle violent crime and the emerging opioid epidemic in our community, and to restore the public’s trust in the office. I am proud to have delivered on every one my campaign promises and more. Today, Lake County is regarded as one of the most effective and respected prosecutor’s offices in the nation and leads on a variety of criminal justice issues, including conviction integrity, the opioid epidemic, sexual assault, gang prosecution, restorative justice, and criminal justice reform.

ADDRESSED WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS. On my first day in office, I implemented an independent Case Review Panel made up of retired judges, defense and civil rights attorneys, supplemented by an in-house Prosecution Protocol & Conviction Review Unit, to review legitimate extra judicial post-conviction claims of innocence as well as the root causes of wrongful convictions. The post-conviction review boards were implemented in response to past miscarriages of justice prior to my taking office. Since then, I have exonerated those wrongly accused, established protocols and training for prosecution to prevent wrongful convictions in the future, and am now called upon to speak nationally about Lake County’s model which is considered a best practice for the country.

TACKLED OPIOID EPIDEMIC. To address the rapidly increasing opiate crisis in our communities, in early 2013 I called upon local stakeholders to develop a comprehensive opioid prevention strategy for Lake County. I co-founded and lead the nationally recognized Lake County Opioid Initiative (LCOI) — a collaborative countywide multi-strategy effort to prevent opioid abuse, addiction, overdose and death. LCOI is made up of a diverse group of more than 300 leaders from law enforcement, first responders, treatment providers, local hospitals, school districts, government officials, the faith community and people in recovery, working collaboratively together on solutions. Lake County was one of the first in the nation to train and equip all first responders with Naloxone, the life-saving antidote to an opioid overdose. We have held numerous forums all over the county to educate youth and the community at large, promoted legislative changes with bipartisan support, expanded access to the Text-a-Tip app for teens seeking help, safely disposed of more than 18,000 lbs. of unused prescription drugs annually, and created a groundbreaking program called A Way Out that provides a pathway into treatment for anyone seeking help. This program is being modeled across the country. Lake County has become a national leader for our approach to this epidemic. To date, more than 700 people have been connected to treatment and more than 400 lives have been saved.

CREATED ALTERNATIVE PROSECUTION PROGRAMS. Under my leadership, we created and launched innovative Alternative Prosecution Programs that benefit the community and crime victims, and offer offenders a second chance. These programs offer first time, non-violent offenders who, in exchange for accepting responsibility for their criminal conduct, have the opportunity to keep a conviction from being permanently entered on their record. The programs give deserving defendants charged with misdemeanors or felonies a second chance to improve their lives and avoid the stigma of a criminal conviction so they can become productive members of society. In addition, we have instituted balanced and restorative justice practices in our Juvenile Division through our Victim Offender Mediation Program, which provides interested victims an opportunity to meet their offender, in a safe and structured setting, and engage in a mediated discussion of the crime. The program allows the offender to learn about the impact of the crime on the victim and to take direct responsibility for their behavior, and also provides an opportunity for the victim and offender to develop a mutually acceptable plan that addresses the harm caused.

PROTECTED CHILDREN. Our nationally accredited Lake County Children’s Advocacy Center (“LCCAC”) is committed to providing a safe, child-focused environment for child victims of physical and sexual abuse. A multidisciplinary team of medical and mental health professionals, law enforcement, DCFS, victim advocates and Assistant State’s Attorneys work together to protect and advocate for the well being of abused children. The goal is to investigate and help successfully prosecute offenders without causing further trauma to the child victim. In addition to achieving national accreditation, the LCCAC has become the second largest performing center in the state, serves as a pilot site for many innovative programs through the CAC of Illinois, and is recognized as a leader in procedure and policy. Last year alone we served more than 1,200 children in Lake County. We also established a Friends Committee to raise awareness of the widespread issue of abuse in our community and to raise funds to enhance the center. To date, the committee has raised over $200,000 for educational outreach and to enhance the center, including building a healing garden for children and families to reflect in a safe place while awaiting assistance, as well as for facility renovations. More importantly, the committee has raised funds to build a medical facility within the LCCAC which will open in October 2020. Once completed, the LCCAC will be one of only three centers in Illinois able to provide child victims with medical support onsite to minimize further trauma.

TOOK ACTION AGAINST TEEN VAPING. Severe and deadly lung injury has exploded the myth that vaping is safe. Teenagers are uniquely affected by nicotine and at risk for progressing to using combustible cigarettes and marijuana. In August 2019, I filed the first-of-its-kind lawsuit in the U.S. against e-cigarette maker Juul Labs for intentionally targeting teenagers with deceptive marketing and creating a public health crisis. I testified in front of state lawmakers about the dangers of teen vaping and the need to enact legislation to curb the health epidemic. As a father of teenagers, I am especially proud to have been a leading voice on this important issue and have presented numerous educational forums throughout Lake County with parents, educators, teens, and residents.

PROMOTED SOCIAL JUSTICE BY ENSURING FAIRNESS AND EQUALITY. Since becoming State’s Attorney, I have restored hope, pride, trust and justice to the office. In February 2013, I created a Citizens Advisory Board comprised of diverse community leaders from across Lake County to improve trust and engage the community on key issues. In November 2017, we launched a Youth Advisory Board which brings middle and high school students throughout the county to be a voice, develop programs and address issues such as teen dating violence, bullying, gangs, drugs and alcohol abuse prevention and other trends affecting teens. I have improved communications, transparency and media relations. In addition to hosting a media open house, we work to be as open and transparent as we can under ethical constraints. While not required, I make the entire case file for any police-involved shooting available to the public on our website. My very first hire, a Latina, still serves as Director of Community Relations in a position I created. We have made community outreach a priority and participate in over 300 community, speaking and training events annually with local schools, churches, law enforcement, community groups and businesses. Enhancing community relations allows for better communication, interaction and safer communities. I have brought change and diversity to the office: 57% of current ASAs were hired by me after taking office, 59% of all supervisors were hired and/or reassigned, 59% of all ASAs hired by me have been people of color and/or females, 23% of ASAs and 44% of non-ASAs hired by me have been people of color. I promoted the first black Division Chief in the history of the State’s Attorney’s Office. I hired the first black and first female Special Investigators. Two of the top three positions in the office are held by women. Two-thirds of my staff are female. These actions are in addition to our many innovative programs to help people get treatment before being arrested, our second chance programs, our work addressing and preventing wrongful convictions, as well as streamlining the felony review process.

HONORED FOR ACHIEVEMENTS. I have been recognized and honored for my leadership, innovations and the accomplishments of the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office. Twice named State’s Attorney of the Year by the Illinois State Crime Commission (2017 and 2014). In 2019, recognized by the Lake County Opioid Initiative with the LCOI Service Award and by the Lake County Chiefs of Police Association with the Friend of the Organization Award. In 2018, awarded the Distinguished Partner of the Year by UBNI. In 2016, recipient of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award by the Boy Scouts of America, Judge Robert S. Smith Jr. Humanitarian Award by Red Mass Committee, and the Law Enforcement Innovation Award by Lake County Municipal League. Named the 2015 Justinian of the Year by the Coalition to Reduce Recidivism and received the 2015 Executive Director’s Award by the Lake County Juvenile Officers Association. In 2014, awarded, the Frederic Milton Thrasher Award from the National Gang Crime Research Center for outstanding leadership in prosecution, and the Moxie Award from the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) for supporting sexual assault victims and justice through the criminal justice system. Recognized with the 2014 Community Leadership Award from the Overdose Awareness Day Planning Committee and the 2013 Home for the Holidays Award from Waukegan Township for my dedicated service and commitment to the Eddie Washington Center and Staben House. Awarded the 2013 Person of the Year Award by the United Hellenic Voters of America.

If you win this position, what accomplishment would make your term in office as a success?

I have been working with county leadership and several community organizations to create a mental health and substance abuse diversion center. This concept would allow people struggling with homelessness, mental illness and/or substance abuse to be diverted from the criminal justice system and provided access to appropriate resources and care. In doing so, we can both take care of them and focus even more of our limited resources on combating violent crime. Currently, many people who end up in the criminal justice system struggle with these issues, which too often result in them being taken to the emergency room or to jail. This is morally wrong and does not address the underlying issue(s). With this center, these people will be diverted away from the criminal justice system so that they can get the help they need. This would include a police drop-off option that could be utilized by every police department in Lake County, as well as a walk-in option for those seeking help. The center will be paid for through blended funding including grants and donations.

We must address racial inequities, systemic racism, criminal justice reform and the lack of trust between communities of color and law enforcement. This platform allows me the opportunity to continue to promote positive social change and address systemic racism thereby bringing our increasingly divided community together. One example of a way to address issues regarding law enforcement accountability is something that I’ve been working on with the Illinois Attorney General and a small group of law enforcement leaders across Illinois to craft legislation to address police licensure. This legislation will help weed out problem officers and provide additional independent review of police misconduct.

Why should voters trust you?

Many people run for office and make promises, only to disappoint the voters. I have a proven track record of doing what I say I’m going to do. I have delivered on every single campaign promise and then some. For example, I promised to create an independent Case Review Panel to address and prevent wrongful convictions, and to implement an Alternative Prosecution Program for first-time nonviolent offenders, and to tackle the opioid epidemic by founding the Lake County Opioid Initiative. These bold initiatives and many others have all been delivered on. Over the course of my 20-year career, I have earned a reputation of honesty and integrity both in the way that I run my office as well as in my campaigning.

What are your views on fiscal policy, government spending and the use of taxpayer dollars in the office you are seeking?

As a fiscal conservative, I believe that it’s my responsibility to safeguard taxpayer dollars while still being able to fulfill my obligation to the community. We have employed many cost-saving measures and I’ve worked hard to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of my office. We have reduced our headcount from 144 to 140. I have trimmed our commodities and contractual budgets by 37% and 43% respectively. I have a proven track record of coming in under budget every year, saving taxpayers a total of $3.2M over the past eight years including returning our remaining budget at year end to help the county meet its most critical needs. We utilize a corps of more than 50 volunteers to assist with our mission. We aggressively seek grant funding to supplement our budget and take some of the financial burden off of the county. For example, 49% of our Lake County Children’s Advocacy Center operations are grant funded and improvements have been funded through private donations. Our office is proud to employ three service dogs–two assist in aiding victims and their families, and our electronic detection dog helps aid in our work against child predators. All three of these dogs were donated at no cost to taxpayers. Another initiative was to train and equip every police officer in Lake County so they could carry the antidote for drug overdose. The program was created through donations and has saved more than 400 lives. Our innovative diversion programs have led to a significant decrease in the amount of new case filings for misdemeanor offenses, which has also resulted in cost savings.

Is there any reason you would not serve your full term of office, other than those of health or family?

No. I love my job and this is the only office I have ever sought.

The best advice ever shared with me was:

My father always taught me to treat everyone equally with kindness, compassion and respect regardless of who they are, their background or circumstances.

What else would you like voters to know about yourself and your positions?

When I first decided to run for this office in 2012, I did it because I wanted to make Lake County safer for my family and all the people of our diverse community. My priorities for serving haven’t changed, nor has my passion. Being tough on violent crime and showing compassion for those who find themselves in the criminal justice system because of substance abuse, mental health or other societal issues has been the cornerstones of my approach to this office. While we have made great strides and the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office is now regarded as one of the top prosecution offices in the country, there’s more work to do. I’m up to the challenge.


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