How Does the Criminal Justice System Work in Champaign County?

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On March 13, 2007, members of the
community showed up at the Urbana
Civic Center to learn how the criminal
justice system works. A panel comprised
of Sheriff Dan Walsh, States Attorney
Julia Rietz, Public Defender Randy
Rosenbaum, Associate Judge Richard Klaus, and Director
of Court Services Joe Gordon shared what their duties are
and how they do them. After their speeches, the participants
selected written questions to answer. The only parts
of the evening offering anything fresh and new were the
cookies served to the people who attended.
During the lecture portion of the event State’s Attorney
Julia Rietz talked about how her office considers individual
factors in making decisions on what criminal charges
to press when a law is broken. Without revealing any
names she mentioned receiving a phone call from a concerned
father who wanted to see his daughters’ abusive
boyfriend get the book thrown at him for using his child
as a human punching bag. Later in the conversation this
same father pleaded for leniency on behalf of his son who
got behind the wheel of a car drunk and killed somebody.
She presented this as an example of how she is expected to
engage in prosecutorial discretion.
This particular aspect of her job is one that considers
the history of a defendant. For instance, if a person goes to
a local store and steals a bottle of liquor chances are that
person will be charged with a misdemeanor, provided that
there is no other criminal history. Then if the person proceeds
to commit the same crime again and again the end
result will ultimately be a felony charge due to the person
becoming a threat to society.
On the surface level this makes sense to me. after all if a
person is given a chance to become a good citizen and
blows it, then there is certainly reason to pursue the punishment
approach. It is unfortunate that some of the
choices made by the State’s Attorney’s office do not match
her words. I have to question the decision Ms. Rietz made
in 2006 when she decided to not pursue heavier charges
against Jennifer Stark who killed a young man while she
was driving down the street and downloading items to her
cell phone at the same time. Considering that this was her
fourth moving violation in two years it would certainly
seem reasonable to presume that Ms. Stark was not rehabilitated
in her habits and it resulted in a loss of life. As it
turns out the only conviction that Ms. Stark received was a
guilty verdict for improper lane usage. Apparently, the
State’s Attorney came to the conclusion that this individual
poses no real threat to society.
Additionally, it begs the question of what to do when
the people who are expected to uphold the law are the
ones who break it. In 2005, an Urbana Police officer
named Kurt Hjort was accused of raping a woman while
on duty. Hjort resigned as a result of the investigation and
no charges ever got filed against him. After the panel discussion
ended I approached Ms. Rietz and asked her about
the case and she stated that her office holds each and every
officer accountable for crimes that are committed.
Considering the alleged rape occurred in 2005 and Ms.
Rietz took office in 2004 it’s a bit of a contradiction. She
also stood firm in her decision to allow William Alan
Myers, a former guard at the Champaign County Jail, to
accept a plea bargain to charges associated with his decision
to use a Taser on a restrained inmate and his later falsification
of the reports of the incident. In return he gets
two years probation and no jail time. Now exactly how did
Myers end up being held accountable for his crime?
When Rietz was questioned after the panel discussion
she became defensive and made it quite clear that she did
not wish to discuss the matter. She mentioned that Myers
will have to live with a felony conviction and the loss of
his pension. Neither would she discuss why her office did
not prosecute Myers when two other people brought forth
allegations of inappropriate Taser usage.
All it took was a simple question for Ms. Rietz to
become defensive and somewhat confrontational. As an
elected official in a public office she is in a position where
what she does will be scrutinized and questioned. Members
of the public have a right to ask questions, and the
public has a right to get answers delivered in a reasonable
and intelligent manner.
My suggestion to Rietz is she that she either works on
developing a thicker skin or reconsiders what she does for
a living. As long as she is in office there are people who
will question what she does and who will not be afraid to
approach her with these inquiries. That is a basic part of
her job and it’s not left up to prosecutorial discretion.

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