Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright is running to keep the seat he was appointed to two years ago. The Republican incumbent is facing Democratic challenger Mike Drake.
The top prosecutor for the county tries high-level civil and criminal cases and oversees junior attorneys in the office.
NPR Illinois spoke with both candidates about their qualifications for the job, priorities for the office and more. Listen here.
The 41-year-old Wright was an assistant state’s attorney in Sangamon County before the county board appointed him to fill vacancy left by John Milhiser, who was promoted to U.S. State’s Attorney for the Central District of Illinois.
Drake, 59, is a private practice attorney in Springfield, and has spent time working as a prosecutor in Cook and Sangamon counties. He said he joined the race after the March primary because Wright would have gone unchallenged and voters would not have had a choice.
“(Wright) was picked to fill a vacancy, a group of politicians appointed him to that position,” Drake said. “We also have a history of Republican control of the office itself since 1948… It's the same old, same old.”
Wright refuted he was picked by a group of politicians.
“While there's no place for politics in the State's Attorney's Office, I'm proud that I came into this office with that kind of bipartisan support and unanimous support from the beginning,” said Wright, who pointed out his appointment was approved in a bipartisan vote by the county board.
Excerpts from the interview below have been edited for length and clarity.
Wright: “There's no better experience than doing the job well; coming into work every day and standing up for victims and being recently and actively in the courtroom trying violent felonies, including first-degree murders, and other cases. Prior to that I was first assistant state's attorney to John Milhiser for about a year before I was appointed to fill the remainder of his term. Prior to that, I was an assistant felony prosecutor in Sangamon County for about a year.
“We should have a state's attorney who has recently and actively been in the courtroom trying those cases. One reason that stands out to me – and it's a contrast in this race – is that you really need to do that to be on top of trends in the law, evidentiary trends, forensic evidence, digital evidence, things of that nature.”
Drake: “I've had a little over 30 years of experience in the courtroom, predominantly criminal work. I've been a prosecutor myself in Chicago, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, as well as here in Sangamon County. At the felony trial division in Chicago, over the course of eight years, I was trained by 800 other seasoned attorneys at all times by my side. And the volume of cases was just unbelievable. As far as the nuts and bolts of trying a case that comes after you've done literally hundreds of criminal trials.”
On Progressive State’s Attorneys and Role In Criminal Justice Reform
Wright: “Well, my job as state's attorney is to enforce existing law. And every case that comes into our office is very fact-specific. So I don't think it would be responsible of me or any prosecutor to take an approach that has no regard for the specific facts of a case. And again, I take my role very seriously to enforce existing law and let the legislature do the lawmaking.”
Drake: “We clearly have a criminal justice system that needs some reforming. I have watched a little bit of what (progressive state’s attorneys) have done from a distance. And certainly there are a lot of ideas there that I think would be helpful. Many of them are already in place, in terms of deferred prosecution for low-level drug cases, and things of that nature.”
On Drug, Mental Health and Veterans Courts
Wright: “We've had great success with specialty courts, and that's a major priority for me. Resources for the specialty courts is a is a major issue. And that's hard to speculate on in the future where that that funding might come from. We are also talking with (Springfield School) District 186, and some other members of the community about a teen court program in the theme of a restorative justice. COVID has kind of thrown off our plan as it is thrown off so many other things. But we intend to pursue that in the future. And I think District 186 will be a great partner as well as potentially other districts.”
Drake: “Certainly now that marijuana has become a legal commodity in Illinois under certain circumstances, all marijuana arrests to be looked at freshly. Much more of this deferred prosecution should be sought for people. But I think we also have to look at the makeup of the people that are being brought in and make sure that that reflects the community at large, so that everybody is getting an even opportunity at those kinds of programs.”
On Hiring Assistant State’s Attorneys
Wright: “I look for somebody who has a genuine desire to serve the public. Our jobs are not about making money. And as I said, to do justice, not just to be out there to obtain convictions - although that's part of our role.
“From the very beginning of my tenure as a state's attorney, one of my priorities is to be mindful of the diversity of our office, whether that be gender diversity, ethnic diversity, diversity in background, to the extent possible. Sometimes that means just taking proactive measures to reach out whether it be to law schools or organizations in our community to try to diversify the pool of applicants that we get. I will say it's tougher in the area of assistant state's attorneys.”
Drake: “We've had a sort of an historically poor job of bringing in people of color into the office as system state's attorneys. There have been a few over the years. So I think that needs to be done a little bit more aggressively than it has; there's really no excuse for that.
“What I would say is that what we have are all these idealistic young people coming into the office, but they have we have to recognize limited life experiences. So you're going to come up against part of the world that oftentimes these young people have never seen, they've never been immersed in. Sometimes they might recommend a certain disposition in case not knowing or not really weighing the fact that that disposition may have ramifications that go beyond the courtroom and that person's life, whether it's the continuing existence of the conviction that might come up on a job application, or perhaps it has to do with federal housing that they might not be able to get. So it seems to me there should be a lot more involvement with those young people as they're developing as attorneys.”
On Priorities For The Office
Wright: “Well, my top priority is to continue to stand up for victims of crime and to work alongside law enforcement to help keep our community safe. Also maintaining a very active and strong Victim Witness Advocacy program, (and) our specialty courts as we discussed. On the whole, I think we should all expect from our state's attorney that that person be actively in the courtroom trying cases.”
Drake: “Probably creating some sort of mentorship role between the older lawyers and the younger lawyers so that there's always somebody available to answer your question. Obviously, within employment of staff and attorneys, they have to be more reflective of the community at large. Any office is going to run more fairly and better if it represents the community at large in my opinion.”