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Road to justice often rocky, unpleasant, legal experts say

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 11:32 a.m. CST

BLOOMINGTON (MCT) — The path to justice can be rocky, uncertain and downright unpleasant, according to candid reflections offered by defense lawyers and prosecutors at a panel discussion sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters.

The event focusing on the power the state's attorney's office has within the criminal justice system featured speakers Ron Dozier, who is a former state's attorney and judge, current State's Attorney Jason Chambers, Public Defender Kim Campbell and Bloomington defense lawyer Jeff Brown.

The county prosecutor's office "is one of the most powerful offices in the legal system. The state's attorney's office is the gateway to the criminal justice system," said Dozier, noting the office has the power to decide what charges will be filed against an individual.

Programs that offer defendants a chance to avoid the damage a criminal record may cause also benefit society, said Chambers. A new Second Chance probation program he plans to introduce next year could allow people a chance to have convictions expunged if they avoid trouble for four years after serving probation.

Chambers acknowledged that most cases are resolved with plea agreements that avoid costly and time-consuming trials. He said his directive to prosecutors is "charge the crime you think occurred, and we'll go down from there," a policy that he said allows for fairer negotiations,

The role of public defender is difficult, said Campbell and Brown, who also serves as appointed counsel for the public defender's office.

Moves by tough-on-crime lawmakers for mandatory sentences for some crimes has jailed people for what otherwise would qualify for probation, said Brown.

College students in legal trouble are among the people police recruit as confidential sources, a dangerous assignment, said Brown.

"I've had a case where a confidential source came up dead," said Brown.

Defense lawyers also face the challenge of high bonds that force people to sit in jail so long that a plea offer that allows their release on probation appears too good to pass up -- even if a trial could bring an acquittal, said Campbell.

"Probation is not a walk in the park. Many people don't make it on probation and end up on the DOC bus," said Campbell.

Panelists at Tuesday's event agreed that solutions must be found to address the U.S. prison system that incarcerates more people than any other nation. Drug treatment for people rather than jail and smarter sentencing policies were among the lawyers' suggestions.

(c)2013 The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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