Felony filings have soared in McLean County during the first six months of the year. The County is on pace for about 1,700 felony cases in 2013. That's about a 20% increase from last year. State's Attorney Jason Chambers says there are several reasons including a change in philosophy on charging.
"Before there was an attitude of they were really focusing on that felony conviction rate. So nothing got charged as a felony unless it was considered really bad. And then they would upgrade. I don't think that's the right way to look at it. Cases are fluid things. They are always changing. There are sometimes when you decide we need to upgrade. But, there's other times when you decide, okay, we need to bring this back down again."
Chambers says a big part of the shift concerns low level felony cases involving DUIs or multiple traffic problems.
"In the past what was done was they were being told you can plead to this as a misdemeanor as it's charged or we will upgrade it. That's not the way those should have been getting done. I think that the proper way is if you are talking about someone who is on their fourth fifth of these offenses, the law says it is a felony for a reason, because they keep doing it."
"They are habitually doing it and they just couldn't care less about whether their license is suspended or they couldn't care less about whether they aren't supposed to be driving because they have three DUIs."
Chambers says there have also been two months of the year that have spikes in felony drug filings. He says those do not appear to be connected to any particular police investigation. And he says his office has engaged in a sustained effort to review a backlog of low priority cases that have generated a few new felony filings that contribute to this year's increase.
Chief Circuit Judge Beth Robb says so far her branch of the court system has been able to handle the surge. Some defense attorneys say it typically takes months for felony cases to work through the system, so any overload of the courts may not yet have become apparent and won't till trial times approach late in the year. They also claim that with felonies charged at the outset, there is less incentive to plead quickly.
Chambers says the bulk of the new filings have low bonds set for defendants. Sheriff Mike Emery says his operations have been unaffected and the jail has maintained a comfortable capacity margin so far this year. The Public Defender's office has received approval to add another lawyer. Nearly 80% of felony defendants cannot afford their own lawyer. Long time court observers note that every time there is a new State's Attorney, felony filings tend to rise in the first year of office. McLean County is on pace for an increase of 300 felonies this year.
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