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Thursday, May 4, 2017 12:01 am

Crime down?

DUI, misdemeanor cases dropping

 The number of misdemeanor and driving under the influence cases has plummeted in Sangamon County.

Last year, prosecutors filed 1,323 misdemeanor cases compared to 1,733 cases in 2015. The reduction accelerated in the fall of last year, when 396 misdemeanor cases were filed between Sept. 1 and Jan. 1; in 2015, 676 misdemeanors were filed during the same time frame. Statistics from the Sangamon County circuit clerk’s office show declines during the first two months of 2017, when 160 misdemeanor cases were filed compared to 230 during the first two months of last year. In February, just 55 misdemeanor cases were filed, the lowest number in a single month going back to 1994, the earliest year for which the circuit clerk’s office maintains monthly stats on misdemeanor case filings.

Prosecutors are also filing fewer DUI cases. Last year, the state’s attorney’s office filed 879 DUI cases; five years ago, prosecutors filed 1,440. In 2015, the office filed 997 DUI cases, down from 1,148 cases the year before.

While numbers are down for DUI and misdemeanors, felony case filings have held steady. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have theories but no hard explanations for the drop in filings for DUIs and misdemeanors for such offenses as disorderly conduct and battery.

“Everybody’s noticed that the numbers have dropped significantly,” says John Sharp, a defense attorney who concentrates on DUI cases. “What we’ve seen in the last couple years, it doesn’t seem like it makes a whole lot of sense.”

Sharp doesn’t think people have become angels. “I’ve been around long enough to know there are still a lot of people out there who like to go out and have fun and drive home afterward,” he says. He theorizes that police may have cut back on DUI emphasis patrols due to reductions in state funding, but that wouldn’t explain the decline in misdemeanor filings. Sharp wonders whether cops are as tough as they once were. “There’s a saying, ‘If you build a better mousetrap, you get smarter mice,” Sharp says. “I don’t know if we have smarter mice. Maybe the cat just isn’t as interested in chasing the mice.”

Joe Roesch, chief deputy for the Sangamon County sheriff’s office, says the cat is still interested, but the sheriff’s office in 2015 stopped assigning a fulltime deputy to DUI patrol.

“We did this to try to staff shifts and respond to 911 calls for service,” said Roesch, who had no easy answer for the decline in misdemeanor cases.

Springfield Police Chief Kenny Winslow did not return a phone call, but Tim Timoney, a defense attorney who focuses on DUI cases, says that the city, which once had two DUI cops, no longer has any officers assigned to DUI patrol. “Dedicated DUI officers are a thing of the past,” Timoney said.

State’s attorney John Milhiser doesn’t have surefire answers. With misdemeanors, relaxed marijuana laws that require police to write tickets instead of making arrests could help explain the reduction, he said. Still, changes in marijuana laws would not seem to explain 280 fewer misdemeanor cases being filed from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 last year, given that 65 misdemeanor marijuana cases were filed during the same time frame the previous year, before Illinois decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The growing popularity of Uber might explain a drop in DUI cases, as people who might have once driven while drunk instead summon a ride, Milhiser suggested. Aggressive enforcement of DUI laws also might be convincing people not to drink and drive, he said. But he acknowledges that his guesses are just that.

“If there’s less people committing crimes, that’s a good thing,” Milhiser said.

While Milhiser theorizes that Uber might be fueling a reduction in DUI cases, a theory that Uber itself has espoused, academics aren’t so sure. Researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of Oxford in England looked at fatal alcohol-involved accidents in 100 large metropolitan areas between 2005 and 2014 and found no evidence that the rise of Uber had reduced the number of fatal accidents caused by drunken drivers.

David Kirk, an Oxford professor who coauthored the study showing no relationship between traffic fatalities and the rise of Uber, wrote via email that many things could explain the drop in DUI filings. Everything from alcohol taxes to the weather to the number of cops on the street to the driving demographic (fewer young males behind the wheel could have an effect) to unemployment rates could be factors, he wrote.

“The point is simply that there are many reasons why DUIs may be declining, and it is important not to infer a causal relationship from just a correlation,” Kirk wrote.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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