STERLING – In office 11 months, Whiteside County State's Attorney Trish Joyce is developing new ways to deal with criminal offenders.
"Do I sound like I've been busy enough for you?" she said with a laugh, sitting in her Sterling office for an interview on an October afternoon.
Joyce, a Democrat, was elected to the office in November, the first fresh blood to hold the job in 3 decades. She took over from Republican Gary Spencer, who actually was her first real boss.
The 54-year-old Joyce grew up in Sterling – on West Ninth Street between avenues G and H – her dad was an electrician at the steel mill, her mom a nurse. She attended St. Mary's School and Newman High School. She helped pay for her tuition starting in the seventh grade.
"My parents said I had to get a job because I needed to start paying my tuition at school, and so I thought, 'What? What do I know how to do?' So I got a paper route," she said. "I picked beans for a farmer in the summertime, I baby-sat, I washed people's cars, I did all kinds of things."
After high school, she attended Aurora University, where she studied political science, writing and literature. And then it was on to Drake University in Des Moines for a law degree before she headed back to Sterling for a job in Spencer's state's attorney's office, where she worked for a dozen years. Then she started her own private law practice in Sterling, its sign still visible along East Fourth Street.
'Highest paid fireman in the county'
Now, Joyce is back where she started. And 11 months into the job, she admits there were some growing pains.
"I think that you're never quite prepared for the diversity of duties that you have," she said of the state's attorney. "I have an extraordinary amount of civil and administrative matters that are run through the office.
"Gary used to always say to me that he was the highest paid fireman in the county, and that’s because you’re continually putting out fires."
The position pays more than $150,000 a year.
When Joyce first came in, she enforced what she describes as a "Top10 Hit List." She asked everyone on her staff to pick 10 cases in their workload – cases that, for whatever reason, had festered for far too long, such as people who had been in jail for more than 1,000 days. Of that number, only a few cases remain today.
Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi has credited her with a big decline in the inmate population at the Whiteside County Jail.
“We had a number of stagnant cases,” he said during an interview in April. “A lot of it had to do with the preparation for the [Nicholas] Sheley trial. The state’s attorney’s office was backed up a bit. She is doing a fantastic job. She is aggressive with getting cases resolved.”
Others have joined in the praise.
Last year, Whiteside County Jail's population averaged about 118 inmates a day, Wilhelmi said; on Thursday, it housed 67.
Drug, mental health courts planned
Joyce also has moved toward starting a drug court in Whiteside County.
To be eligible for drug court, nonviolent offenders must first be screened. Once they're accepted, the state works with them to help break the cycle of addiction. They're provided with treatment, randomly and regularly drug tested, and held accountable for following the guidelines the court sets forth. Setting up the program is a long process, she said, but one she hopes to have completed by next summer.
Next up is setting up a mental health court, something she sees as more feasible once the drug court is in place.
"There are a finite number of things I can do this quickly, but I figured once we had drug court up and running, the foundation of mental health court is somewhat the same as drug court," she said. "The issues are generally the same; your approach is just different."
She also has established a juvenile justice council, which works to assess what services are already in place for youths going through the juvenile justice system.
"One of the things that we’ve talked about is victim-offender conferencing," she said.
Victim-offender conferencing, she explained, provides a safe, controlled environment for the victim and the offender to meet. The idea is that it gives the offender the chance to listen as the victim explains the impact of the crime.
"Hopefully, it would get the offender to recognize that, 'Hey – look, there’s a live person behind this crime that I committed, and this is the impact, and maybe I didn't realize that,'" she said.
Her office also has spent a lot of time trying to save the financially struggling April House, the child advocacy center in Whiteside County. Since she has taken office, Joyce has enacted a child advocacy center fee on cases. And just recently, she helped to organize a fundraiser that brought in about $10,000 for the center.
Her Sterling office is sparse. A few prints hang on the walls, and a bookcase sits opposite her desk. Joyce spends most of her time in Morrison, but goes to Sterling sometimes for meetings or hearings. Or when she needs to get work done.
"It's quieter here," she said, "but they know I'm here."
She had a message right then, in fact, to call one of the assistants about something, she said.
What work she doesn't get done during the day, she takes home with her, where she lives with her goldendoodle, Happy.
"Look, I'll show you a picture," she said, smiling as she scanned through her phone.
"You know something; there are good days and there are bad days in every job, in every profession," she said. "I've just been lucky that the good has outweighed the bad."