Michael Nerheim: Candidate profile, Lake County state's attorney
Incumbent Republican Michael Nerheim of Gurnee faces a challenge from Democrat Eric Rinehart of Highwood 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. 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 have been the cornerstones of my approach to this office.
I feel my work here is not yet complete. We have made great strides in the last eight years, and the Lake County State's Attorney's Office is now recognized as one of the most innovative, respected, and effective prosecution offices in the nation. But, the opioid epidemic is still plaguing our community, gun violence in neighboring Cook County is threatening to further spill into our neighborhoods, and domestic violence and crimes against children remain serious challenges. There's more work to do.
This office also allows me a platform to promote positive social change and address systemic racism thereby bringing our increasingly divided community together.
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 board and what would your priority be?
A. 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 of 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, teen vaping, restorative justice, and criminal justice reform. Created Case Review Panel, considered a national model, to identify and prevent wrongful convictions; tackled the opioid epidemic by founding and leading the nationally recognized Lake County Opioid Initiative; created and expanded diversion programs; significantly enhanced nationally accredited Lake County Children's Advocacy Center; brought services of facility comfort dogs and an electronic detection K-9; acted against teen vaping by taking on the industry with first-of-its-kind lawsuit in the United States; increased diversity of the office as well as transparency and community involvement; and recognized by numerous national, state and local agencies, leaders, and organizations.
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. Violent crime, including gang violence, gun violence, and crimes against children, continues to be my top priority. Having worked personally with thousands of crime victims and their families, I have seen firsthand the devastation and lasting impact these crimes have on our residents and community. We will continue to be vigilant in aggressively prosecuting violent crimes, sending a crystal-clear message that this type of conduct is not tolerated in Lake County.
• Gangs and guns: Worked with the US Office of National Drug Control Policy to obtain High Intensive Drug Trafficking Area designation for Lake County, which brings resources to aid in the fight against gang and gun violence. Applied for funding to implement technology that will detect firearm activity in high crime areas, so law enforcement can immediately respond.
• Crimes against children: Significantly upgraded the Children's Advocacy Center, which investigates and prosecutes crimes against children. The center received national accreditation and implemented a Multi-Disciplinary Team approach bringing community resources and social service agencies together to aid children and their families.
• Violent crime: Enhanced Cyber Lab capabilities and acquired electronic detection police dog to aid in investigating and apprehending child predators and other violent offenders.
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 expense or other budgetary items that the office must address, and, if so, how do you propose to address them?
A. During my time as State's Attorney, we have shifted resources to meet the needs of today's more complex cases and our focus on violent crimes, as well as specialty courts and other diversion programs. Looking ahead, COVID-19 is expected to cut revenue for Lake County at an estimated impact of up to $50 million, which will affect our budget. We must continue to find ways to do more with fewer resources.
● Assigned more prosecutors to our Children's Advocacy Center
● Created a Gangs Prosecution Division, Specialized Victims Unit, Domestic Violence Unit, Cyber Unit, and the A Way Out substance abuse diversion program
● Significantly decreased number of new case filings for misdemeanor offenses
● Reduced head count from 144 to 140
● Trimmed commodities and contractual budgets by 37 percent and 43 percent respectively
● Came in under budget every year realizing more than $3.2 million in savings
● Utilized a corps of more than 50 volunteers to assist in our mission
● Aggressively sought grant funding to supplement our budget
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 will overcome any obstacles to initiating it.
A. My experience has taught me that many people end up in the criminal justice system because they suffer from addiction or mental health issues. I believe we would be better off if we could divert those people away from the criminal justice system and toward 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.
I'm already working to accomplish this diversion goal. We created the nationally recognized "A Way Out" program, which gives a way for those seeking help for substance abuse to find treatment through the police, without arrest. More than 700 people have successfully entered treatment through this program.
Now my focus is on the many police officers throughout the county who often interact with people in mental health crises.
My solution, which I am working on with several community leaders and nonprofit organizations, is to develop a crisis care/wellness center in Lake County. It will function as a "walk-in" center for those seeking help, as well as a drop-off center where police can bring a person in distress, and will be funded through grants and donations.
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. My office has a record of holding people accountable when they break the law, including police officers. We have charged police officers with crimes including sexual assault, theft, burglary, battery, domestic battery, official misconduct, and other criminal offenses. I have processes in place that address criminal offenses and overall police misconduct. For example, I have open lines of communication with every chief in Lake County requiring them to report any incidents of criminal and potentially unethical conduct. We have also been proactive in improving police and prosecutor training in the use of force, implicit bias, cultural awareness, and crisis intervention. My office has taken action when problem officers are identified. The more complex problems to resolve involve officers whose misconduct goes unreported, ignored, or where police administration is not able to adequately address the situation internally. On occasion, problem officers will resign rather than face the internal discipline process, only to go and work at another department. I have been working with the Illinois Attorney General and a small group of law enforcement leaders across Illinois to craft legislation to address police licensure. This would allow for additional independent review of police misconduct that could result in their decertification.
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 and permanently change as a result? What do suggest?
A. I am proud of the way my staff has responded to the challenges placed on our operations by COVID-19. From day one, my staff has adjusted to the many changes and continued to fulfill our mission to keep Lake County safe. Throughout this time, my staff provided uninterrupted service to our law enforcement partners, clients, and the public. We have 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. Moving forward, efficiencies identified should continue permanently. For example, we started conducting bond hearings remotely in order to limit exposure to court and jail personnel. This process has turned out to be more efficient for local municipal police departments. Many in-person meetings and events can be effectively held remotely. This pandemic will have a significant impact on our budget for many years. We must continue to find ways to meet this financial challenge. One valuable opportunity will come from the work I've been doing with justice partners in Lake County to acquire and implement a new case management system, which will be more efficient and cost effective.