GALESBURG — In October of 2019, Knox County State’s Attorney John Pepmeyer announced that he would not seek re-election in the 2020 general election, ending a 12- year tenure. The question of who will fill the position after Pepmeyer leaves office on Dec. 1, 2020 is now being contested.
The state’s attorney is the county’s chief prosecuting officer. They are responsible for prosecuting criminal cases, traffic violations, juvenile court and other cases.
Democrat Jeremy Karlin and Republican Brian Kerr have stepped up to fill the position. Both have served in the office as assistant state’s attorney, although their backgrounds diverge in other ways.
Karlin moved to Galesburg in 1995 to be an assistant state’s attorney. He then served from 1995 through 1997 in the office, under both Republican Ray Kimbell and Democrat Paul Mangieri.
Kerr was born and raised in the county. Graduating from Knoxville High School, he received a bachelor’s degree from Knox College and a juris doctor from Southern Illinois University School of law in 2003. After graduating, he worked in Cambridge, Illinois, as a Henry County assistant state’s attorney. When the position opened up in Knox county, he took the job. Since 2015, he has been the first assistant state’s attorney in Knox County, working under Pepmeyer.
Karlin’s career moved into a private practice after he left the county office. He says that his practice has included criminal and civil litigation, a pallet litigation, labor and employment law, family law, real estate, municipal law and mediation.
He also was elected to office in 2011, serving until 2019 for two terms as an alderman on the Galesburg City Council. In 2016, he ran for the state’s attorney position, losing in the primary to the incumbent Pepmeyer.
Karlin also touts a history of public service in the community and in the legal profession. These include being a past president at Temple Shalom, investigating elder abuse resulting in fatalities at the Western Illinois fatality review team advisory committee, being a member of the NAACP legal redress committee, and being a pro bono attorney for not-for-profit organizations in the area.
The Register-Mail reached out to both candidates for this article, asking for them to weigh in on an identical set of questions.
Why they are running?
For Kerr, who has served under Pepmeyer, he hopes continue the work he started in the office, working with law enforcement to make the community safer. From his time as the first assistant state’s attorney, he says he is already well equipped to handle the office, prosecute every type of case the office sees, supervise staff and work with partner agencies to serve victims of crime.
“As a prosecutor, I work closely with law enforcement, not only as witnesses in trial but also aiding them with search warrants, arrest warrants, and offering legal advice on their cases. What law enforcement begins, we as prosecutors take to the next level to work toward public safety,” he said. “I have been doing this work for a long time and have the experience and knowledge to run the office in an effective way to handle the caseload and protect the community from criminal offenders, starting on day one. “
Karlin says his campaign is built off of his own years of service in the county, a record that he says will extend further than just “doing his job.”
“I have always been driven by a deep-seated desire for public service, a goal of improving the quality of life for the community and a firm belief that an individual can make a difference,” he said. “I will be a state’s attorney for whom public service is not merely an occupation, but a way of life.”
How well they think the office is running now
Karlin says the office is in need of improvement, while Kerr says the office is doing good work, but has been facing challenges following the pandemic.
“Caseloads are up, hours are long, the pandemic causes starts and stops along the way that affect everyone in the justice system,” Kerr said. “But our office, like any family, bands together and works through the tough times, handling our workloads, even if that means working late.”
He said in addition that he was proud of how office staff and attorneys work together to meet the challenges they face daily.
To Karlin, more change is needed to the office, however, and he has made an end for “dangerous plea bargaining” a central cry of his campaign. He says plea bargains in the county lead to lenient sentences for violent offenders and drug dealers, while those accused of crimes of addiction and mental illness are too quickly given felony convictions.
“We should be talking about treatment before jail and convictions. If we can steer these cases out of the system from the start, we will free up resources and courtroom time to focus on violent defendants and serious offenses that require the greatest amount of attention,” he said.
He says he would refuse probation for people who commit gun crimes. Anyone found guilty of committing one would go to prison. He says he would also work beyond the confines of the courthouse, alongside police, schools, churches and others in the community to get help to those at risk. He also hopes to improve communication between the office and the public.
“If we wait for people to get in trouble before we intervene, it is often too late,” he said.
He also wants to make the office more transparent, with a great amount of communication with the public
First six months in the office
To Kerr, the direction taken by the office, should he become its head, will take time to determine. He will need to review the way things are working, evaluate them, and look for solutions. He says that right now, spending his days in court, preparing for court, or assisting other agencies most of the day, has not allowed him much of that time yet for evaluation.
He says more training and supervision would be beneficial to have available for new hires, both for in-court and office work, and that office hours should be added to discuss issues with staff.
“Once I can evaluate the status of how the office is running, I would review the current policies and make necessary adjustments to ensure the consistency and integrity of the office,” he said.
Karlin wants to make more changes, and sooner. He says he will be an active presence in the courtroom for the most difficult cases, and make all charging decisions on potential felonies to assure the public that cases are properly charged.
He will also create a new system, he says, to handle crimes of addiction and mental illness, focusing on treatment before conviction while stopping plea deals for drug dealers and violent offenders.
He also plans to hold more regular open office hours, including publishing his cell phone number and pledging to return all phone calls within one business day and using social media to connect with the public. He will also work to reduce disparities based on class, race and gender in crime sentences.
He also wants to have regular communication with law enforcement officers and quarterly meetings with every shift of every local agency. Finally, he wants to form “genuine, transparent partnerships” with school, law enforcement, community organizations, businesses, houses of worship and county residents to work toward crime prevention programs.
How they plan to use the office’s budget
The budget of the state’s attorney office, which Kerr has been working on a review of alongside the office staff, is “largely allocated to salaries, then operatives costs such as supplies, expert witnesses, professional services, and software,” Kerr told The Register-Mail. There is little room, he said, to reallocate resources without additional funding.
Still, he says that he would search for grants that could help hire an additional attorney to help process the large number of cases processed annually at the office.
Karlin also hopes to find access to federal and state grants to help pay for his changes. He says the reduction of county revenue during the pandemic will likely impact the office, though.
“The office will be forced, like every other County office and department, to do more with less,” he said.
He says his policy changes to reduce felony charges being filed should help reduce strain on the department and allow him to reassign staff to monitor individuals in mental health and addiction treatment. He also hopes to hire a part-time investigator to assist in serving subpoenas, case preparation, and outreach to local law enforcement.
The biggest challenges facing the office
To Karlin, the changes to modernize the office will be one of the most challenging tasks that he foresees. He says another issue will be the rift in the relationship between the county board and state’s attorney’s office, which he hopes his previous time representing the county board will help mend.
Kerr sees the biggest challenges of the office being the high caseloads the office faces, and salaries that are lower than those in the private sector. The county has about 900 felony cases per year, and only two felony attorneys to handle all of these cases. These positions can be difficult to fill.
“While times are tight and budgets are not able to be increased, I will continue to advocate for an annual increase in salaries, even looking to outside sources of grants and other funding to do so,” Kerr said. “I would also look for grants and funding opportunities to look at the possibility of adding new staff to assist with these high caseloads.”
Kerr says the large amount of sexual abuse cases dealt with by the office serve an additional challenge, however, due to the toll they take on staff, attorneys, law enforcement and victims.
“I have watched colleagues suffer serious mental health issues over constant exposure to child sexual abuse cases. It is alarming to see how many of these cases our office handles in a year,” he said.
How can the county address this? Kerr says the office already takes an active role in the Knox County Child Advocacy Center’s Multidisciplinary Team, which works alongside law enforcement, the Department of Children and Family Services, the Pediatric Resource Center and Monarch Trauma Counseling.
Since joining the office, Kerr has been the main prosecutor on child sexual abuse cases. He says these cases will be a priority to protect children in the community from predators, and he would commit to continuing to work as lead prosecutor on these cases, advising team members and requesting sentences to protect victims from their perpetrators.
Improving prosecution of domestic violence cases
A Register-Mail series on the prosecution of domestic violence cases found 26 percent of these cases resulted in convictions for domestic violence. Kerr notes that these cases are some of the most challenging to prosecute. Victim testimony is often needed to prosecute abusers, but if the victim decides for any reason not to cooperate with the office, there is often nothing the state’s attorney’s office can do.
Kerr says in his work at the office, he has made it a point to work in conjunction with their victim and witness coordinator from the very beginning of domestic violence cases. Kerr says early communication with a victim is important to establish trust and cooperation throughout domestic violence cases.
“I would encourage all attorneys in the office to take a similar approach with early and consistent contact to increase the cooperation of victims in domestic violence cases,” he said.
Karlin says his office would create a new approach to these cases that “does not merely focus on convictions” and is instead focused on the victims. He says this focus will need to provide victims with the greatest opportunity for justice, based upon the six core rights of victims as described by the Vermont Center of Crime Victim Services.
These six rights are toward safety, information such as answers to questions, the choice to participate or not, a chance to testify the truth, validation of experiences, and the full and prompt payment of restitution.
Addressing DUI disparities
A Register-Mail story in 2019 found a disparity in convictions between DUI offenders with private representation and those who had public defenders. The Register-Mail asked both candidates how they would address this.
Karlin responded by saying that a legal system that treats people different on a basis of class, or race or gender for that matter, is unjust. To address this disparity and others, he said he would make sentencing data public to ensure accountability from the office.
“My office will collect data on charging, dispositions and sentencing to determine whether these types of disparities exist. We will pledge to make sure that dispositions and sentence decisions are based on meritorious criteria and not solely on a defendant’s ability to pay,” he said.
On the other hand, Kerr said that without viewing the parameters of the story, he cannot speak to its accuracy or measure how it came to its conclusion.
“Defense attorneys, whether public defenders or private attorneys, all have the same opportunity to discuss plea deals with the state’s attorney’s office,” he said. “In a typical case, the individual facts and circumstances would determine what type of plea deal would be appropriate.”