A recent, extensive Tribune investigation into municipal DUI prosecutions in DuPage discovered that defendants in Downers Grove are more likely to pay a fine – a hefty fine – and keep their license in a plea deal than if prosecuted by the county. According to the Tribune,
The data show that towns charge far more in fines and fees for DUI than county prosecutors do, and that suburbs charge more in particular to those who receive the special arrangement.
Those getting the deal had to pay 12 percent more, on average, than those who lost their licenses. In some places the premium was higher, such as 26 percent in Downers Grove…
This is troubling data. Both Cathy Stanley, who is the court watch director of the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, and Secretary of State Jesse White spoke out against the practice, with Stanley calling it a “runaway system.”
And it should concern staff and the elected officials in Downers Grove.
Village Attorney Enza Petrarca and Police Chief Robert Porter refused to comment to the Tribune, and the response from Mayor Martin Tully was so dismissive, it would have been better if he had refrained from comment. Tully told the Tribune, “If you take a pool of data trying to find information that’s going to confirm your suspicion, you can probably find it. Like dots on a wall, you can see whatever you want to see.”
Village Commissioner Geoff Neustadt, who is running for mayor against Tully in upcoming municipal elections, declined to provide a comment to the Tribune as well. That doesn’t bode particularly well for his campaign to differentiate himself from the mayor to the voters.
I suspect it is less quiet behind the scenes at Village Hall, where Tribune reporters can’t overhear conversations. And, knowing the personalities of the other commissioners on the dais, I doubt that the CYA mentality of Village bureaucracy is going to cut it this time. Village Manager David Fieldman and Director of Communications Doug Kozlowski aren’t going to easily spin these numbers, and the residents of Downers Grove are too smart to buy the Remain Calm, All Is Well storyline that the Village is so fond of telling.
But, before we break out the pitchforks and barrels of hot tar, it’s probably smart to take a moment and ask a few questions.
- How many DUI arrests in Downers Grove result in plea agreements vs convictions?
- Why is the prosecuting attorney taking more plea agreements than convicting for a higher offense? Is there something wrong with the arrests? Do our police need more training?
- Is there any incentive for the prosecuting attorney to make more plea agreements?
- What is the total amount of revenue the Village receives from the plea agreements in DUI arrests?
- Why does the Village use its own prosecutor instead of the county prosecutor?
- Does Village Attorney Enza Petrarca have to approve the plea agreements?
If there has been a systemic and sustained policy of accepting plea agreements instead of convictions, then we need to know why. The suggestion that we are trading public safety for dollars is repellent, and current practices need to be investigated and discussed, openly and forthrightly.
The Tribune and its reporters deserve praise for uncovering this troubling practice. Now that we know, it’s up to the Village Council to further the investigation and provide answers – and solutions- to the residents.
I have been critical in the past of the Village of Downers Grove’s propensity for hiring consultants, but this is one case where hiring an independent, outside authority is called for. The Village Council should hire, independent of the Village Manager and Village Attorney, a former prosecutor to review and investigate how the Village has handled DUI arrests. Village staff has already shown a reluctance to participate in an open discussion, and should not handle their own review.
As Secretary of State Jesse White said in a statement to the Tribune, “DUI offenders should have to face the consequences of driving drunk. Paying steeper fines should not allow offenders to escape the penalties of their actions.”
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