About 1,400 people are arrested for felonies in McHenry County each year.
Some 120 may have the opportunity of getting a second chance.
That’s what McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi, his Criminal Division Chief Deputy Phil Hiscock and program administrator Sue Van Diggelen outlined at a courthouse press conference this morning.
Reiterating the theme he enunciated at his fundraiser, Bianchi started by saying,
“I ran for office to do justice and keep our community safe.”
He pointed out that in the last year under predecessor Gary Pack there were only five jury trials.
He contrasted that to the 50 held last year and 64 expected this year.
But there are only two judges who handle the felonies.
To lesson the workload Bianchi has convinced 22nd Judicial District jurists, the Probation Department and the County Board to institute a “First Offender” program which will divert some of those arrested for felonies from the courtroom to alternative consequences.
Currently, there is about a 2,000-3,000 case backlog.
It is modeled after Kane County’s, which has been in operation for 15 years. Other larger counties using the program include Champaign, McLean, Rock Island and Tazewell.
Kane County’s “has been wildly successful,” Hiscock said, pointing to its 77% success rate and $1.8 million in restitution.
Starting September 1st, all charged with felonies have 60 days to apply for the program. Those newly arrested will face a similar deadline.
Hiscock pointed out that it takes 1½ to 2 years to process a felony through the court system now. That results in frustration for victims and the problem of witnesses’ memories fading or witnesses even moving out of the area.
There is a “massive backlog of cases,” Hiscock revealed as he explained this new way to lower that backlog.
Bianchi explained that the first time offender program is “an opportunity for them to repent, to recover from a mistake.
“It’s not that there won’t be consequences,” he stressed.
They will have to report to probation, pay fines, do community service, perhaps be required to complete high school or a GED.
But, they “won’t face the consequence of later having a felony conviction (on their records, if they complete all of the program’s requirements.”
That’s a big carrot.
But there is also a big stick.
To get in the program, the person must admit to the felonious behavior.
And, if he or she doesn’t complete the program or gets arrested again, there will be a sentence for the admitted crime.
Bianchi explained that his office gets calls from people 15-20 years after felony convictions, convictions which appear to have been “a stupid immature mistake.”
He thinks this program could cut down on such calls for future State’s Attorneys.
So, who’s not eligible?
- Anyone with a prior adult felony arrest.
- Anyone currently on probation/conditional discharge for misdemeanor or felony charges (juvenile or adult).
- Anyone who is an active gang member.
- Anyone charged with violent, domestic or sex offenses.
- Anyone charged with Class X, S, 1 or non-probational offenses.
- Anyone charged with drug or alcohol related offenses.
- Anyone charged with using a weapon.
- Anyone who committed the offense while out on bond.
- Anyone who is charged with identity theft.
- Anyone charged with a traffic offense.
- Anyone who is charged with committing a crime against an elderly victim.
But, if one’s non-violent crime does not fit into those categories, one may apply.
Examples given were of a man who rented a car and then rented to someone else to make some money to support his family and a shoplifter who stole not too much more than the $210 that qualifies for a felony arrest.
Who will decided?
Ultimately, it will be the State’s Attorney’s Office, but citizen panels, accompanied only by program assistant Van Duggelen, will interview the applicants and make recommendations.
No attorney for the person arrested or Assistant State’s Attorney will be in the room while the applicant and economically and ethnically diverse panel members interact and deliberate on their recommendations. There will be three panels of ten people. Background investigations will be performed before people are allowed on the panels.
Victims will be contacted for their opinion of the applicant’s suitability for the program, as will police departments
“It’s going to be a great program,” Bianchi concluded.
And, this isn’t the only program to divert people from the court system.
“By this time next year, we’ll be talking about the opening of our Drug Court,” the State’s Attorney said.