A Conversation With Dustin Heuerman, Democratic Candidate For Champaign County Sheriff
Democrat Dustin Heuerman is running for Champaign County Sheriff. Heuerman is currently the program coordinator and academic advisor of criminal justice at Lake Land College in Mattoon. He also serves as a part-time police officer at the college, and he's previously worked for the Champaign County Sheriff’s office.
Heuerman will face Republican Allen Jones, who currently serves as the county’s deputy chief, in the Nov. 6 election.
Heuerman entered the race after no one ran in the primary on the Democratic side. Speaking with Illinois Public Media, Heuerman discussed his views on what he thinks should be done with the county’s two jail system, cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the biggest challenges facing the sheriff’s department.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Illinois Public Media: What in your mind is the county jail for?
Heuerman: There's what the county jail is for and what, unfortunately, counties across the nation have been using the country’s jails for. So when we're talking about what the county jail is for, technically, it's to keep the community safe from violent criminals by securely housing them inside the county jail. We securely house violent pretrial detainees — those that pose a flight risk. The jail is also meant to securely house offenders who have been convicted in court for a jail sentence of up to 365 days. And so those are all what the jail is for.
Unfortunately we've done a lot of -- and by we I don't mean just in Champaign County, I mean nationwide — we've done a lot of locking up mentally ill offenders. If we don't have anywhere to put them and they've done something wrong, we'll put them in the jail. We tend to hold people who aren't necessarily a flight risk and they aren't necessarily violent criminals. And jails nationwide have turned into that type of place as well.
Illinois Public Media: Are you in favor of pretrial diversion programs for nonviolent offenders that allow those people to remain free, so not incarcerated in the jail during the length of their criminal proceedings?
Heuerman: So we have pretrial diversion programs which would be, for example, drug court. And traditionally those types of diversion programs are done before somebody is going to trial. And then if they successfully, in the case of drug court if they successfully pass everything for their drug court, then they're not going to go to trial for that. So that's one, and yes I'm in favor of programs like that, including even expanding those some if we could. As far as pretrial diversion programs with getting those accused of a crime out of jail while they're awaiting their trial, yes, I'm a very big proponent of those as long as number one, they're not a flight risk. And number two they're not a risk to being violent in the communities.
Illinois Public Media: What do you think the role of a sheriff is?
Heuerman: I think that obviously this whole criminal justice reform cannot be done just by the sheriff's office. We need to partner with the judiciary as well. If a judge tells a suspect that he or she has no bail we have no option to do that. Right,we can't do anything. We have to hold them. The judge orders us to hold them. The same type if the judge sentences somebody to go to jail for up to 365 days we're relatively limited on what we can do. Now we do have alternatives to incarceration for those who have been convicted. The sheriff's office right now actually has, we call it electronic home detention, and that is kind of a probation type of thing. People wear an ankle bracelet. They're out there out at their homes. They have authorization to go to and from their houses whenever they're going to work, to and from the grocery store, to and from school, etcetera. Because of a lack of adequate manning at the sheriff's office, the deputy sheriff for a long time, including whenever I was working as a deputy, they were primarily responsible for going out and supervising and making sure that the electronic home detention offenders were actually where they said they were going to be. And that presented problems because we're also out on the streets enforcing crime and being proactive in things.
I think with the alternatives to that incarceration before or after somebody is found guilty, I think we've also got to provide that adequate amount of supervision over them to let them know they just don't have free reign. But my master's degree is in criminology, and I know that most people especially for us that are in the jail, even if they're sentenced to the jail, even most prisoners who go to the Department of Corrections are going to be out eventually. Very few inmates do we see spending life in prison. And they're going to have to readapt to the environment in which they came from. And so it's very important to me at least, that if we know they're going to have to readapt to their environment to get them settled in that environment the first place. So, focusing on resources as far as what can Parkland College offer. You know, apprenticeship programs, things like that. I think that all rolls into alternatives to incarceration, whether you have not been found guilty in court yet, or whether you have been found guilty.
Illinois Public Media: And how do you plan to foster better relationships between law enforcement and the minority communities that it serves?
Heuerman: You know we have two typical sheriff candidates that basically meet the mold of the typical sheriff candidates. I have ties to the LGBT community as well as the Latino community. My in-laws are actually Latino. And I think that's a really good start. It's just the very tip of the iceberg. But some things I think we can do, is first off we've got to make people know that they don't need to be afraid of us. And so when we are looking at combating some of that, a lot of times not knowing what happened is just as bad as thinking something bad happened. People jump to conclusions, etc. So I think we need to be really transparent. If we have an incident, unfortunately, we need to be transparent as soon as we can in the investigation to let the public know what happened. Otherwise, they're going to be jumping to their own conclusions. Second of all, my first full time police job was in Douglas County for Douglas County Sheriff's Office, and we had a very small population of citizens, etcetera. And we got out and we talked to everybody. I think that is a key role. We can't as police officers or sheriff's deputies, we can't just be driving by in our squad cars. We have to get out, we have to talk to the communities, and not just in the cities of Champaign and Urbana -- we're talking about in the county areas as well. And actually find out what people's issues are, how we can help them solve them.
Think about a time where you felt comfortable or uncomfortable talking to somebody, and you're probably more likely to talk to somebody who you feel comfortable with. People in the community are going to feel more comfortable coming forward with information for police or investigators if they feel comfortable talking to them. If they don't, they're probably not even going to go out of their way to talk to them. So, just simply, you know, treating them with respect, being transparent with investigations that are occurring, and just simply talking to them and finding out what's going on in their communities, I think will really help bridge that gap.
Illinois Public Media: And what are your views on the cash bail system? Are you in favor of it or do you believe it should be reformed?
Heuerman: Governor (Bruce) Rauner last year signed (into law) a little bit of a reformation for the cash bail system, which went into effect the first of the year. The purpose of bail is to ensure that people show up for court. That's that's bail 101. And so, I think we have to take a look and say: 'Why are we making people post bail?' Number one, are they a violent offender and we need a extra incentive before they can actually get out? Number two, if somebody is sitting in jail simply because they can't afford bail, but they have ties to the community, and they're not a flight risk, and they're not a violent offender, I don't see why they would need to post bail, if the purpose of bail is to ensure that you show up in court.
Yes, I believe that we have taken a positive step towards bail reform. And I am absolutely a proponent of locking up violent criminals. But everyday that an offender that is nonviolent is sitting in jail simply because they can't pay for this bail that a judge has set, or the state has set through legislation, they have the jeopardy of losing out on a job or not attending classes and getting kicked out of school. All of those things that would eventually make them successful in the end with a little push, we're stacking the deck against them in the beginning.
Illinois Public Media: And what do you think should be done about the county's two jail system?
Heuerman: The county needs to get rid of the downtown jail. I think that both of us as candidates are firm in that belief. When I worked at the Champaign County Sheriff's Office, and the sheriff's office is obviously at the downtown jail, I remember some of the female deputies talking about the conditions, and cockroaches running by their feet when they were in the restroom, and things like that. Obviously, the downtown jail is not up to ADA standards. I, as a taxpayer and as an administrator, we have to be cognizant of this. And it can be pretty easy to say, 'well why do I care what inmates want?' You know, they did the crime, do the time now, etc., but it's really important for us to provide facilities for them so we don't get sued.
We also want to make sure that our correctional officers are safe whenever in that environment, and the medical staff that work in the jails are safe in that environment. And I think that's very important to get the view of those who work in that setting. And by all means if I'm elected in November, when I take office, I will continue the discussions, but they all agree that it is more fiscally responsible to have one facility as opposed to two. Mostly because now we've divided up the personnel and it's not as safe as if we had all personnel under one roof. We've also got to worry about supplies and doubling up the supplies and getting them to different facilities. And it really does make more sense from what I know so far to consolidate into one facility.
Illinois Public Media: To what extent should the sheriff's department cooperate and communicate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers?
Heuerman: I am not a proponent of cooperating with ICE. And I will tell you why. First off, I guess with the caveat of we have to do what we're legally mandated to do. I will never violate the law to not do something, etc. But within the confines of the law, I believe that we should not cooperate with ICE because I think it's a slippery slope. I think that, you know, we're gonna see things like what happened in Arizona, to where people were being pulled over for having brown skin and having to prove that they were United States citizens. It wasn't we suspect that you're undocumented, so let's stop you and ask for your citizenship. They were actually pulling people over and asking for their citizenship papers. And I think that's a very slippery slope. My nieces are both Latina, and I would hate for them to be pulled over or them to be singled out simply because of the color of their skin. I also think, and we see this with domestic battery a lot, too, that if people are afraid that they might get deported, they're not going to report being a victim of a crime. So, we see victims out there who are undocumented or domestic battery victims, etc., and they're afraid they're going to go to jail, they're afraid they're going to get deported. And we, as the police, need to be called when they need assistance. We don't need them to hesitate whenever they need police help.
Illinois Public Media: And just to follow up on that, I just want to get a better sense of what you what you mean. Because my understanding from some of the reporting I've done on this particular issue, there is no evidence that I have found that the Champaign County Sheriff's Department is holding these people solely on the basis of their immigration status. That is now illegal under state law. But they are, from documents that I've found, communicating with ICE enforcement officers mostly with regard to letting them know when people are going to be released from custody. Because ICE wants to know and wants to be there and pick them up. Is that something that you would continue to do?
Heuerman: So, I have confirmed that as well. And so it's it's interesting because when we have an order from a judge to hold somebody who is undocumented, we have to comply with that order. However, ICE a lot of times will have ICE officers sign orders that say, 'hey would you please keep them here,' and we're not obligated by law to do that. And I'm not aware of the sheriff's office actually enforcing that. But, yes, you're correct. They will call ICE whenever somebody is getting ready to be to be released. And ICE will be there ready to pick them up. I'm not an advocate of that. My job as being someone who is elected by the citizens of Champaign County has to look out for everybody -- not just those who maybe pay taxes. You know I don't think it's any different than somebody visiting Champaign County. I am expected to protect somebody visiting Champaign County just as much as I am the citizens and taxpayers here. Whatever goal they have, ICE, they can continue to try to do that. But the sheriff's office will not be cooperating with them if I'm elected sheriff.
Illinois Public Media: So does that mean the sheriff's office will not be calling them to let them know when people are released from custody?
Illinois Public Media: And what's the biggest challenge facing the sheriff's department right now, and what do you plan to do about it?
Heuerman: So, a couple big challenges, and I've narrowed it down to two. Because there are a lot of challenges. And it can be easy to say, 'well, the jail is a big challenge for the sheriff's office.' I think that the jail is going to be a big project for the sheriff's office. But I think we've already taken steps to start figuring out how to address those things. So, in my view, one of the biggest challenges for the sheriff's office right now is the low morale. Employees don't feel like they have a voice in decision making, training has been reduced from previous years. And why is this important? Well, because the low morale has caused people to start leaving the sheriff's office. As such, a lot of times on shifts, I have confirmed through the sheriff's office through officers working at the sheriff's office, that a lot of times deputies will be in the cities and they won't be able to go out on patrol the counties proactively. They'll have to wait until there's a call because there's simply not enough of them to properly proactively patrol out in the county.
I spoke with a deputy the other day who was I think he was on his 30th hour of overtime in two weeks. And he was burned out. When people are burned out, they're more likely to make mistakes, they're more likely to be aggressive. One thing that I want my stint as sheriff to me is I want to foster that relationship and that respect in the jail and out in the field. And it's very hard to do that when you've got overworked officers who don't know if they're coming and going, and they're stressed out, etc. So, I think that is one major issue. The other one, the biggest challenge I see is mental illness. we don't have a lot of options in the county of Champaign to deal with mental illness. If a police officer deals with the mentally ill out on the street, they have two options: take him to the emergency room or take him to jail if they've committed an offense. And my husband's a nurse and I have several friends that are nurses. And they will tell you that they might, at the emergency room, they might be able to solve the problem temporarily, but they don't have the resources to really treat the mental illness that's occurring. And we at the jail, we can identify mental illness. We can watch them a little bit extra. But we don't have the facilities and we don't have I guess the personnel to really address mental illness in the jail.
And so we have to collaborate with community organizations, a lot of great community organizations, and even the hospitals, not necessarily the emergency room but the hospitals in general to try to find a good alternative for mentally ill, even if they've committed a crime. So maybe we can get them the help they need as opposed to just sitting them in a jail cell and locking them up. So those are the two big issues, the big challenges I see for the sheriff's office coming up.
Illinois Public Media: Why do you think you're the most qualified person running for this position?
Heuerman: You know I didn't I didn't plan on running for sheriff. I've never really been political. I vote in every election. And the primary in March, I sat down and I talked to my husband at length about it and I said, 'wow, this is way too important of a time to not have a choice in November whether they vote for me or not. It's too important of a time to not have a choice for sheriff in November.' And nobody ran in the primary, and that's when I started speaking with the Democratic Party about being slated as the sheriff candidate. So I have 19 years of criminal justice experience. I think that rather than having 28 years in one department, I offer that diverse view.
I have worked in Champaign County Sheriff's Office and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. I have a college teaching background with criminology. I'm in charge of the criminal justice program at Lake Land College. And I think that I am a good fit because number one, I can relate more with the community than than somebody with one single characteristic can. And number two, I think that I can pull from all of my experience with different agencies and different opportunities and make innovative decisions as opposed to drawing from simply one agency on things that maybe have occurred over the last several decades.