McLean County has a new top prosecutor, Don Knapp. The McLean County Board appointed him state’s attorney last month after his predecessor, Jason Chambers, became a judge.
The next time voters will choose a state’s attorney will be 2020. But unlike members of Congress or the General Assembly, a prosecutor’s day-to-day job performance isn’t scored for the public to see. With fewer media outlets covering daily life in the courthouse, it’s harder to measure a prosecutor’s success on the job.
One tool voters will have is a new study underway from the League of Women Voters of McLean County. It’s looking at how prosecutorial decisions are made in the local criminal justice system, from determining whether to file charges, to crafting plea offers, and recommending sentences. Preliminary findings of the study will be presented Thursday at noon in the Bloomington Police Department’s Osborn Room.
“They have significant discretion,” said Stacey Tutt, an attorney who’s working on the study. “Even with the legal analysis (they do), there’s discretion. There’s discretion on whether to charge something with a felony, or a misdemeanor. And once that decision is made, it influences so many of the other decisions as you go through the criminal justice system … like what your bond is set at.”
The study is rooted in the League’s support for decreasing incarceration rates for low-risk, first-time offenders and providing alternatives to jail where warranted, said Tutt, formerly of Bloomington-Normal and now teaching law at the University of California at Irvine.
The study will be based on surveys of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys, plus interviews, including those with defendants and victims.
For voters, evaluating a prosecutor is made more difficult by the time it takes for convictions to be overturned. Alan Beaman was convicted in the 1993 murder of an Illinois State University student, Jennifer Lockmiller, only to have that conviction overturned in 2008. By then, the state’s attorney overseeing his case had been out of office for six years. Beaman still wants the detectives to be liable for allegedly framing him.
“The long appeal time does make it difficult to assess the state’s attorney,” Tutt said. “We wanted to create a study and look at these factors to help voters ask good questions of their state’s attorney at the time they’re going to elect them.”
Those questions include how he or she plans to use the state’s attorney’s budget, how they’ll provide guidance and training to their prosecutors on staff, and their willingness to use diversion programs like drug and recovery courts for nonviolent offenders.
“By understanding the influences of rules, resources, and relationships within our local justice system, voters can make a more informed decision when selecting their next state’s attorney,” Laurie Bergner, the League’s programs chair, said in a statement.
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