Join Everyday Law with our special guest, Lake County State’s Attorney, Mike Nerheim, as we discuss his background, his reforms and his accomplishments in his term!
Lake County Roots
Mike Nerheim has been the Lake County State’s Attorney since 2012 and is running for re-election this November. Nerheim was born and raised in Waukegan. From a young age he had an interest in law enforcement and wanted to be a F.B.I agent. Towards that end, he focused on attending law school and worked as an intern for the Lake County State’s Attorney while in college and law school for 5 summers. His first job after law school was prosecuting for the Lake County State’s Attorney.
Nerheim worked at the State’s Attorney’s Office for approximately 8 years; gaining trial experience prosecuting cases from DUIs to murder cases. He then moved into private practice working as a criminal defense attorney. As a criminal defense attorney, he also worked as a public defender in cases where there was a conflict with the Public Defender’s Office. Over the course of his legal career, Nerheim has worked as a prosecutor, private defense attorney as well as a public defender, giving him a unique view of the criminal justice system.
Role of the State’s Attorney
The State’s Attorney is the chief law enforcement official for Lake County. As State’s Attorney, Nerheim oversees 142 persons, the third largest State’s Attorney’s office in Illinois. Nerheim, a hands-on leader, enjoys the variety of work in the office. As a prosecutor, the role of the State’s Attorney is to represent the people of the State of Illinois, which includes both the victim and the defendant in a criminal case. Thus, if the prosecutor believes that the defendant’s rights may have been violated, it is the responsibility of the State’s Attorney to speak up, even if the defense attorney does not.
Wrongful Convictions in Lake County
Lake County received nationwide attention for several wrongful convictions from the 1990s. Nerheim stated that wrongful convictions are problematic for many reasons including the fact that an innocent person is sent to prison as well as the fact that the real culprit escapes justice. Moreover, the public’s trust in the criminal justice system is eroded. There is also a financial cost to the taxpayers in paying out civil damages to those wrongfully convicted.
Reforms to the State’s Attorneys Office
Nerheim campaigned for the Office of State’s Attorney on a platform of reform to address these wrongful convictions. He has instituted a unit to identify old cases where wrongful convictions are an issue and to identify why it happens and how to prevent it from occurring. The main cause for wrongful convictions is because of cognitive bias or tunnel vision which may lead detectives or prosecutors from disregarding information that doesn’t fit their theory of the case.
Lake County Case Review Panel and Conviction Integrity Unit
The Lake County Case Review Panel, instituted by Nerheim, is made up of a panel of volunteers of retired judges, civil rights attorneys and a DuPage County judge who review cases after a conviction where innocence may be an issue. The cases reviewed come from a variety of sources such as attorneys, defendants or local innocence projects. An example of an issue that comes up is where DNA is at issue. As the science of DNA has changed significantly over time, the panel will follow up on cases where DNA may be at issue and in fact, a 22-year-old case of sexual assault where DNA was in question, was reviewed and the defendant was exculpated.
In addition to the Case Review Panel, Nerheim also instituted the Conviction Integrity Unit. This Unit is part of the State’s Attorney’s Office. This unit works in a parallel fashion to the Case Review Panel, but concentrates on training and protocols to prevent wrongful convictions in the future. At present, there are only 18 conviction integrity units in the United States.
What Leads to Wrongful Convictions
As previously stated, cognitive bias or tunnel vision can lead to some wrongful convictions. Nerheim also stated that bad prosecutors and detectives can also be responsible for wrongful convictions. Additionally, identification of defendants can lead to wrongful convictions as they may unreliable unless conducted carefully. Confessions are another area which can result in wrongful convictions. Confessions that are recorded audio and videotaped may help insure the confession was properly taken.
Nerheim’s Additional Accomplishments in the State’s Attorney’s Office
Nerheim has instituted 4 additional changes to the State’s Attorney’s Office including office reorganization, the Alternative Prosecution Program, a Mental Health Initiative and a Heroin/Opioid Initiative.
Nerheim has reorganized the State’s Attorney’s Office into specialized units or divisions. Employees are placed in the units where they are best suited. Thus, the office runs more efficiently.
The Alternative Prosecution Program is a diversion program with an aspect of restorative justice. Low level, first-time non-violent offenders can avoid a felony conviction by participating in this program. A panel of volunteers meet with an eligible applicant and determine how the applicant can pay their debt to society while avoiding a felony conviction. Resolution of the case may include restitution, treatment or getting a job.
Mental health issues impinge on the criminal justice system in a big way as our society does a terrible job of treating the mentally ill as evidenced by the fact that the largest mental health facility in Illinois is the Cook County Jail. The Mental Health Port is a diversion program designed to identify persons who require mental health treatment. This program involves training of police officers in C.I.T. (crisis intervention training).
Another significant societal issue is the use of heroin and opioids. The Heroin/Opioid Initiative is a program to deal with the illegal use of opioids in Lake County. Lake County is next to Cook County and Chicago which is a major distribution center for these drugs. This Initiative includes a panel of over 300 citizens from diverse backgrounds who are working together to solve this issue. The Initiative has worked to get the overdose drug, naloxone into the hands of the police. To date, police have saved 116 lives by using this drug for overdose victims. Additionally, there is a program to collect unused medication. Lastly, the “Way Out” program is a pre-arrest program whereby drug users can go to a local police department and ask for help in getting treatment without being arrested.
Robert Monahan, Esq. is a lawyer in Gurnee, IL with his own practice in personal injury. He has a radio show on Thursday nights at 7 pm, called “Everyday Law,” on WRLR 98.3 FM, where he tries to demystify the law for the ordinary person. “Everyday Law” can be downloaded as a podcast from iTunes or other various podcatchers. His two websites are www.monahanfirm.com and www.gurneepersonalinjuryattorney.com. He also has two Facebook pages – “Robert A. Monahan, Esq.” and “Everyday Law.”