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DeKalb County state's attorney candidates spar over plea deals

State’s attorney hopefuls spar over handling of plea agreements

GENOA – Republican challenger Rick Amato criticized incumbent DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack for being too lenient on felony crimes during a debate Thursday night.

The two faced off at a League of Women Voters forum held at Resource Bank in Genoa.

Amato, who has touted himself as the candidate of law enforcement, said that Schmack’s office has allowed half of all felony cases to be reduced through plea bargains to misdemeanors or dismissed altogether. Further, he charged that about 75 percent of all Class X felonies – the most serious crimes with the exception of murder – have been reduced to lesser charges during Schmack’s tenure.

If elected, Amato said he would do things differently.

“The office’s assets, energies will be focused on the most serious crimes,” he said. “We have to take these seriously. ... You need to be aggressive and take a stance against those types of crimes.”

Schmack stood on his record, pointing to his office’s four first-degree murder prosecutions. All resulted in first-degree murder convictions, he said. Schmack prosecuted William Curl, Chaz Thrailkill, Jessica Breuer and Keith Terrell.

He also defended his decision to plea bargain some Class X felonies down to less serious crimes.

Schmack said that the vast majority of Class X felonies in DeKalb County are drug charges that are enhanced to that level from Class 1 felonies because of their proximity to schools, parks or churches. In many of these cases, the crimes didn’t actually take place in a school, park or church, but happened within a 1,000-feet of one of those places for an unrelated reason. For example, a dealer selling drugs out of an apartment could be charged with a Class X felony if that apartment is within 1,000-feet of a park, Schmack said.

“Those are cases that are often going to be pled out to a lesser offense,” Schmack said.

On other issues, the candidates showed they shared common ground.

Both said they supported the recent creation of a mental health court program in the county. That program, which will be similar to drug court, will offer those with mental health issues who are facing nonviolent felony charges an opportunity to seek treatment and avoid prison.

Questions about local bond reform efforts and marijuana prosecutions highlighted some of the differences between the candidates.

When it comes to marijuana, Schmack said he would continue to enforce state laws. Further, he said he would continue to work to get first-time offenders into diversion programs.

“We’re not looking at the idea that anybody should be sent to prison simply for the possession of marijuana,” he said. “We have to recognize though that it’s still illegal to sell it. We will continue to prosecute these cases as they get arrested.”

Looking forward, Schmack said the trend has been toward legalization.

“Eventually, it is likely to become legal in this state and that is something that I think we can all live with,” he said.

Amato said he was concerned about people driving while high, a crime he said he’s seen an increase in since state law was changed to make possession of less than 10 grams of the drug a civil offense rather than a criminal one.

Amato called marijuana a “slippery slope.” But, said he’d follow the law and “do what’s best for your community.”

On bond reform, Schmack said he supported the move away from requiring cash bond. He said the system has long been unfair to the poor, but noted that reform efforts still made it possible to detain those deemed a threat to public safety before trial.

Amato also praised local bond reform efforts, but said he wasn’t ready to get rid of the entire system.

“I think a system that incorporates both risk assessment as well as bonds that are community-based and evidentiary-based is fine,” he said. “I don’t think the whole system should be terminated just to have a purely no bond system.”

Schmack’s work on the Maria Ridulph homicide case wasn’t mentioned during the debate.

This year, Schmack worked to help free Jack McCullough, the man convicted in 2012 of the 1957 murder of the 7-year-old Sycamore girl. Schmack has said McCullough is innocent of the crime and pointed out flaws in the prosecution of the case by his predecessor.

Amato has declined to comment on the case out of respect for the Ridulph family, and because he hasn’t reviewed the case in detail.

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