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Top prosecutor Nerheim has hit the ground running

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim stands between shelves case files office Waukegan. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim stands between shelves of case files in the office in Waukegan. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 6, 2013 2:15AM

Now that he is Lake County’s top prosecutor, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim is working to deliver his vision for the office.

Nerheim announced the members of his Case Review Panel and the civilians on his Public Integrity Unit. He also started researching the Bennie Starks pending aggravated battery charge from the 1980s, which will be back in court on Monday.

He did those three things his first day on the job after he was sworn in just over a month ago.

Since then, he has been interviewing the 144 employees in the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office, started work on the gang prosecution unit and started on an Alternative Prosecution Program.

In the interest of restoring public trust in the office, he has created and filled a new communications position within the office.

“I absolutely love it. This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Nerheim. “It’s been busy, it’s been a challenge, but I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m putting together personnel changes and changing some of the structure of the office.”

He said he has a blueprint in mind regarding office staffing, but he is interviewing every staff member within the office before doing anything official. He started Dec. 3, the day he was sworn in, and said he anticipates completing the interviews by the end of the month.

He has spoken with all the supervisors so far and about one-third of the felony trial division. He is collecting staff ideas of how to improve the office.

“It’s been very healthy and very effective ... it’s exciting. I’ve been very pleased with the results I’ve gotten so far,” said Nerheim.

He may change who the office’s chief deputy is and make other changes once he has finished the interview process. He had talked about expanding the cybercrimes division and enhancing in-house training during his campaign.

A chief of the felony trial division will be appointed when he is finished. The post has remained vacant since Patricia Fix was placed on unpaid administrative leave for alleged campaign sign theft. Fix was the last chief of the felony trial division. She was elected a judge in the November 2012 election and has denied the theft allegations.

Nerheim said the investigation into the allegations is being handled by the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board.

“I don’t believe it’s appropriate for this office to handle this case ... it’s best handled by an outside agency,” said Nerheim.

He is in the process of getting schedules together so he can swear in Case Review Panel members as special assistant state’s attorneys. The panel will bring a fresh set of eyes on cases to tackle the wrongful conviction issue, Nerheim said. The Case Review Panel will be part of the State’s Attorney’s Office, but will not be physically part of the office.

He is also getting schedules together for the civilians who will swear confidentially oaths.

“It’s really an attempt on me to go out and listen to the people in the community. (The community panel) is not the only vehicle people have to access me. Anyone with concerns or ideas can approach one of these trusted community members,” said Nerheim.

He is sending some staff to Kane County for training for an Alternative Prosecution Program. His proposed Alternative Prosecution Program is modeled after Kane County’s second chance program.

The program diverts first-time, non-violent offenders from the court system, and offers them treatment and programs to keep a conviction off their permanent records.

“The Alternative Prosecution Program is coming in weeks. I’m assembling a team of people to run the program,” said Nerheim. “Working on that program is a priority of mine.”

Nerheim is also meeting with law enforcement and federal agencies to develop relationships to create a gang task force.

He said he “can’t stress enough” how excited he is to be back in the State’s Attorney’s Office. He spent seven years an assistant state’s attorney before he went into private practice as a defense attorney.

“It feels great. I love being a prosecutor. I very much appreciate the role of defense attorney, but it feels good to be back here,” said Nerheim.

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