The Lake County State's Attorney office has been attracting national media attention since 2011, when a scandal involving multiple counts of wrongful convictions came out. Democratic candidate Chris Kennedy and Republican Mike Nerheim discussed their visions for restoring the integrity of the office at the League of Women Voter's Lake County Administrative Offices Debate on Sunday afternoon. Holiis Burgess moderated the debate, with the audience submitting the questions anonymously.
The questions began with one asking the candidates about how they would ensure that the office becomes more transparent, without sacrificing the privacy of those involved in sensitive cases.
"The role of the State's Attorney is to go out into the community and to tell people about what's going on," Nerheim said. "I don't believe in trying cases in the media ... but the public has a right to know what's going on."
Kennedy agreed with the overall sentiments expressed by Nerheim, adding that, "The State's Attorney [scandal], now that it has become national news, has had 50 or more articles written about it by the Chicago Tribune all including the phrase, 'the State's Attorney did not respond to phone calls'. We need to answer to the people. ... I am committed to total transparency now as I have been throughout my career."
The candidates were also asked what one major, important thing will happen if they are elected to the office.
"No more favoritism," Kennedy stressed. "If my mom comes to Lake County and committs a crime, she's going to be prosecuted like anyone else."
Nerheim also swore to restore the people's trust in the office, but additionally promised to address the growing gang problem in Lake County.
"I ... want to fight the gang and heroin problem. There's a gang problem in Lake County and with gangs, they bring drugs — specifically heroin."
The candidates responded to a question asking what help they would provide to prevent crimes against the elderly and identity theft.
"The State's Attorney has a significant role in the education of the public," Nerheim said. "Prevention is the most important aspect of crime. I think we need to bring in someone who has had experience in financial crimes."
Nerheim also promised that he would expand the number of prosecuters in the office who specialize in dealing with financial crimes, as well as expanding the training of current victim counselors in the department.
One of the most contentious questions referred to Nerheim's plan to bring in an unbiased, outside panel of law professionals to help deal with the current wrongful conviction suits — including, according to him, retired judges and retired lawyers from both poliitcal parties. The audience member asked if it was appropriate for the people on the panel to remain unnamed prior to the electorate's committment of voting for them.
"This panel is independent and outside," Nerheim stressed. "This problem is too big for one person [to deal with]."
Nerheim stressed later on in the afternoon that he wasn't revealing the identities of those committed to being on the panel until after the election, to prevent politicizing the individuals involved.
"On day one, I'll be ready to hit the ground running," he stressed. "We can't afford any more wrongful convictions in Lake County, and that's why I've taken it upon myself to set up this panel and [be prepared to] get started right away."
Kennedy, on the other hand, disagreed that Nerheim's panel was the right move for the office.
"I think it's inappropriate and frankly presumptive to have named the panel already," Kennedy retaliated. "You can't hand off cases to outsiders."
The candidates were also asked about how accurate they believed DNA evidence was. (DNA evidence came into question throughout the wrongful conviction allegations against the State's Attorney Office.)
Both candidates noted that they strongly believed in the accuracy of DNA evidence, and that the science has only gotten better since the crimes in question. They both also noted that the office needed to do a better job training both prosecuters and police officers in the latest advances in DNA forensics, to better prepare them for any cases that may arrise.
The candidates were asked if they had received any campaign contributions from their political party.
Kennedy answered first, responding that he has been an "open-minded Democrat" for as long as he can remember, and that he had not accepted any campaign contributions from the party.
"The Democratic Party doesn't seem to care about the state's attorney," he joked. He noted that he had to raise all of his campaign's money on his own adding, "I'm a Kennedy — but I'm not one of those Kennedys," with a laugh.
Nerheim echoed Kennedy's sentiments, stressing that he's actually turned money down.
"I've been recently offered money by my party," he said. "But I turned it down."
The candidates next addressed the issue of monetary caps on wrongful conviction suits, to which both agreed there shouldn't be one.
"I can't imagine anything worse than being imprisoned for something you didn't do," Nerheim said. "You can't give people the time back, all we can do is give them money."
Kennedy echoed the sentiments, expressing that, "the law in Illinois is that there is no cap." He noted that he would stick to that law.
The final question of the afternoon asked the candidates if they would keep the previous first assistants in the office, or if they would instead be clearing out much of the previous staff.
"I'm not going to make personnel decisions on the campaign trail," Kennedy said.
But he went on to stress that diversity was a major consideration for him.
"There are currently 73 attorneys [in the Lake County State's Attorney Office]. Two of those are African-American and one is Latino. ... I'd have a publicly-posted hiring process.
Nerheim expressed a similar sentiment.
"The State's Attorney used to be a stepping stone to a career," he said. "Now it's a position where qualified attorneys spend their careers."
He also noted that he would sit down with every single employee in the office and speak to them one-on-one, trying to implement the best ideas in the daily runnings of the office.
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