Lake County state's attorney hopefuls debate office's record on justice
Republican Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim and Democratic challenger Eric Rinehart both vow to improve the office's ability to deliver justice over the next four years, but they differ significantly over how much change is possible within its established duties and budget.
During a joint interview with the Daily Herald editorial board Wednesday, Nerheim touted his experience as state's attorney and his earlier career as a criminal defense attorney, while Rinehart accused the incumbent of overstating his accomplishments.
Nerheim, a Gurnee resident, claimed responsibility for freeing four wrongly convicted people, a program that provides drug abusers help through their local police departments, and for maintaining services within a county budget hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rinehart, of Highwood, characterized Nerheim's successes as far too few for his eight years in office.
"People should vote for me if they want their state's attorney's office to do better," he said.
Nerheim responded that Rinehart's promises -- such as lobbying for a large share of the county's budget -- reflect a naiveté about the office.
"It's easy to say things, but I have a record of actually doing things," Nerheim said. "(Rinehart) wouldn't be a very good campaigner if he said I was doing a good job."
Rinehart also claimed a lack of transparency in the state's attorney's office, saying statistics on violent crime and domestic violence in particular should be easily accessible to the public. He attacked Nerheim's claim of improvement in the area of wrongful convictions, saying that many of the prosecutors responsible still work in the state's attorney's office and are training others.
"What Mike is saying is just not accurate," Rinehart said. "We need a public report about why these things happened."
Nerheim acknowledged mistakes in past prosecutions but said they were unintentional. Anyone responsible for intentionally prosecuting an innocent person would be gone, he said.
"If I see someone I think was wrongfully convicted, I'm going to take action," Nerheim said.
Improving the state's attorney's office will require more training to overcome implicit biases, hiring more people of color and assuming greater responsibility in prosecuting misconduct by police officers, Rinehart said.
Some of the same police officers who participated in taking false confessions in the past are still involved in felony and murder cases at the Lake County courthouse today, he said.
Nerheim said systemic racism that exists throughout the country can manifest itself in the criminal justice system, but training and holding officers accountable for their actions are important steps in combating it. Being consistent in dealing with the misconduct of officers -- including in cases that aren't publicized -- is necessary, he said.
Nerheim proposes a system of licensing police officers that would oversee their professional conduct and not allow them to simply move from one area to another without facing consequences for ethical violations -- just as the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission does with lawyers.
Nerheim characterized an increase in violence in Lake County as a spillover from Cook County, but he said he has been pursuing grants and other ways of raising outside funding for new programs to address the problem.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, but early voting begins Thursday, Sept. 24.