Affrunti Hopes To Make A Difference

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In June of 2012, five years after graduating from law school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Andrew Affrunti left the Logan County State’s Attorney office and made his first foray into private practice at a firm in Lincoln. He lasted ten months.

“I begged John Milhiser (then the Sangamon County State’s Attorney) for any job he had open,” Affrunti remembered. “When I came back to the state’s attorney office, I took a $15,000 pay cut, but I felt a lot better at the end of the day. I’d rather feel happy and enjoy my job, than not. To me, that’s worth a lot more than the money.”

That passion for helping people is what led Affrunti to his current position, Montgomery County State’s Attorney, a position he won during the November election.

“I was getting kind of bored in Sangamon, because they have so many attorneys that you get pigeonholed into one type of case,” said Affrunti, who had been working felony cases in Sangamon County since 2015. “I love this. I’ll have a meth case in the morning, a county board issue two hours later and a tax issue two hours after that. It keeps my brain active. I’m always looking for something to think about. That’s why I like it.”

While he grew up in Springfield, graduating from Sacred Heart-Griffin High School before attending Lincoln Land Community College, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, and finally  SIU-Carbondale, Affrunti said that Montgomery County’s size also had appeal.

“I loved Logan County when I was there. It was a small rural community, kind of like here,” Affurnti said. “This was the best opportunity to give back to a community that is small and caring. This is like good old fashioned family values. We have crime, but you have good old fashioned family values. I’ll walk down the street and everybody says hi. I like this. That’s the real reason why I did it.”

Affrunti says that it also wasn’t an opportunity that he was necessarily seeking out. His work in Sangamon County was important, focusing on narcotics, gun cases, gang cases and violent crime, mainly in Springfield. In 2016, one of the local street gangs burglarized a gun store, taking 50 firearms and sparking a large scale power play between two of the city’s bigger gangs.

That led to an increase in violence in 2017 and the formation of a unit combined of police officers and members of the state’s attorney office, including Affrunti.

“(We) just focused on those guys for a year to a year and a half,” Affrunti said. “We just tried to lock up as many of them as we could. We had some really, really good police officers who worked really hard.”

That connection with police is one of the things most key to the job, according to Affrunti, so when Montgomery County Republicans called and asked him to run for the office in 2018, he knew his first step was to talk to local law enforcement.

“If law enforcement says everything is fine and we don’t have any issues, then I’m not going to run,” Affrunti said he told the party. “To me, my job here is to support law enforcement and to support the county board. When I met with law enforcement, they had some concerns and that’s why I ran.”

After losing to incumbent Bryant Hitchings in 2018, Affrunti ran again in 2020 and won. And after being sworn in on Dec. 1, he has hit the ground running.

“When I walk in day one, I’m expected to come in and handle all of these felony cases,” Affrunti said. “I can prosecute a case, that’s easy because I’ve been doing it long enough, but how do I charge it? What paperwork do I need to fill out? Where do I need to file it? Everyone kind of does it differently so there is a learning curve.”

In Sangamon County, Affrunti was one of eight felony attorneys to go along with the state’s attorney and the first assistant, not to mention the civil side of the department as well. In Montgomery County, the staff is a little smaller, with assistant prosecutors Wes Poggenpohl and Jacob Swanson the only other two attorneys in house.

In addition to being thrown right into the fire, the small staff also offers up some challenges on bigger cases, like the two murder trials the office has coming up. In Sangamon County, a murder case usually had a team of three attorneys on it, a lead prosecutor, a second chair and a gopher, which allowed the attorneys to bounce ideas off of each other to determine the best way to prosecute a case.

“With a small office like this, it’s going to be hard to do those kind of things,” Affrunti said. “I can’t pull Wes and Jacob into a murder trial for two weeks, because nothing else would get done.”

That’s where his experience in Logan County comes in handy. During his three years in Lincoln, the county dealt with the murders of Rick and Ruth Gee of Beason, and their three children, one of the most gruesome and highly publicized crimes in the history of the state.

“The attorney general’s office had four attorneys assisting on just that case in Logan County. Luckily, there are those resources out there for small counties like us to utilize,” said Affrunti, who added that the Illinois Office of the State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor also offers assistance in larger cases.

While murder cases aren’t that common in Montgomery County, methamphetamine cases have been, some involving offenders who have committed crimes again and again and again.

“I believe that the biggest concern law enforcement has, and the community has, is individuals who commit a crime, get out on bond, commit a crime, get out on bond, commit a crime...” Affrunti said. “They’re not upset when a person commits a crime and gets sentenced, because they see that there’s a crime and a consequence. When they see crime, arrest, release, crime, arrest, release,  crime, arrest, release, with no consequence, that’s frustrating.”

Affrunti said those repeat offenders are his top priority the first few months. While the state’s attorney office doesn’t set bonds, it does make recommendations and Affrunti believes that there are procedural tools his office can use to get the message across to offenders, including increasing or revoking bonds for people who already have pending cases.

Another avenue to take a shot at the drug problem is to pursue forfeitures more often. Affrunti said that drug offenders usually fall under two categories, those who are addicted and those who are in it to make money.

“If they’re an addict, they’re not going to have any money. But if we hit a house and there are drugs and $10,000 in there, let’s take the $10,000 and split it up between the departments,” Affrunti said, with the forfeiture funds going to purchase equipment and training. “We can hit these people where it really hurts them and it can help the county. We’re not going to have houses with $50,000 in them, but $1,000 here and there adds up pretty quick.”

While the forfeitures hopefully help deter current criminals, Affrunti also has his sights set on the root cause of the problem.

“It’s not just a punishment question anymore. It’s, ‘What have we done to rehabilitate them? What chances have we given?’ Obviously, you’re not going to have those questions on a murder, but if it’s their first offense, we’re going to ask, ‘Why did they commit it? What can we do to help them?’” Affrunti said. “Really the goal is to stop repeat crime. That’s why you have success with drug court and some of these specialty courts, because you can address the root cause of the problem.”

Drug court has been successful in Montgomery County thus far in helping to rehabilitate offenders, rather than just sending them to prison, but Affrunti said there are other options that may help people struggling with issues other than addiction.

“One thing that we don’t have here that we had in Sangamon County is a mental health recovery court,” Affrunti said referring to the court that focuses on mental health recovery. “At some point in the next year, we’ll look to see if we can get community stake holders involved in that process.”

There are challenges to establishing a mental health court  though, with Affrunti saying that it took Sangamon years to implement the idea, even with two major hospitals and several outpatient recovery clinics invested. Still, he believes its success makes it worthwhile to at least look at it in Montgomery County.

“Mental health problems are the hardest, but the easiest to help people with. It’s the hardest job to convince them that they need help, but once you get them help, it easily fixes the problem,” he said of the mental health court. “If you can address the root problem of the offense, then you have a lot better chance of preventing it from happening again. We can’t just lock everybody up for 20 years. Granted, there are some people that need to go away for 20 years.”

Outside of the courtroom, Affrunti said that he hopes to make small changes to modernize the office and be more fiscally efficient. He’d like to make strides in using less paper in the office, a daunting chore in a place that seems to run 8.5 by 11 inches at a time.

“I don’t expect us to be able to afford the huge software programs, but can we put some things on a shared drive? Probably,” Affrunti said. “I don’t want to do something just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We’ve had some advances in technology, so let’s see if we can do it more efficiently. I’m not just an attorney. I have a fiscal responsibility to the county.”

It’s another piece of the puzzle for Affrunti in making the community a better place, a task that takes him away from home more often than most. Still, he hopes that commitment to helping others is something that his young children, William (11), Charlotte (9) and Nathan (6), notice and pursue when they get older.

“I saw my dad volunteer a lot, as a kid, and help out with things. I hope my kids see me contributing to the community and not just complaining about what’s going on, but doing something positive to help it,” said Affrunti, who was also a foster parent for four years with wife Dana,  a board certified behavior analyst. “Hopefully, they’ll see that and understand why I work these long hours to get it done. And maybe they’ll do the same thing some day.”

That’s the long term goal. Until then, Affrunti will continue to do the job that he loves and help people the best that he can.

“It’s nice at the end of the day to feel like you did something, like you helped someone,” Affrunti said. “I met with a lot of people on the campaign trail who said that they were a victim and this is what was happening. All I said was, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ I can’t promise anyone anything, but I’m more than happy to look at anything and tell you what I can and can’t do. And I’ll have a reason for it. That’s the best that I can tell anyone.”

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