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Under Varga: Theft up, violent crime down

Like the types of crimes Lee County is seeing, the jail population, too, is changing

John Simonton speaks during a forum Tuesday at Dixon High School for Republican Party candidates for Lee County sheriff. Simonton is challenging Lee County Sheriff John Varga in Tuesday's primary.
John Simonton speaks during a forum Tuesday at Dixon High School for Republican Party candidates for Lee County sheriff. Simonton is challenging Lee County Sheriff John Varga in Tuesday's primary.

During John Varga’s two terms as Lee County sheriff, numbers show that the county has seen a slight rise in crime, though the crime rate overall is lower than it was during his predecessor’s tenure.

The increase in crime can largely be attributed to the growing number of thefts – a problem facing most law enforcement agencies in the Sauk Valley. Varga’s time in office also included the years of the Great Recession, the period of time between December 2007 and June 2009, which the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls the “longest, and by most measures, worst economic recession since the Great Depression.”

Violent crime, on the other hand, has decreased.

“The thefts are definitely increasing,” Varga said. “What they’re stealing is stuff so they can generate money just so they can support their drug habit or have money in their pocket. ... It’s the area. It’s the economy. People are looking for ways to get revenue because they’re not working.”

To combat the rise in theft, Varga’s office has made efforts through the media to alert citizens.

“We’re using The Telegraph; we’re using the media in order to let people know what’s going on,” he said. “If you can make the citizens more aware of what’s happening – you want to make sure everyone’s locking their doors and locking their car doors. A lot of it is education. ... It’s making sure that the folks out in the county know what’s going on and making sure we give them the information so we can better protect them and their property.”

Another issue his agency has faced, especially in recent years, is the growing instance of on- and offline bullying. The problem has received a large amount of attention nationally, with documentaries like “Bully” and campaigns like the It Gets Better Project, which focuses its attention on giving hope to bullied LGBT youth.

Varga and his officers have made the rounds at local middle and high schools to educate and, they hope, prevent bullying. They put on assemblies during which they talked to students about social networking and the implications their actions might have.

At the time, his son and daughter were in high school and junior high, respectively, and were both privy to the assemblies.

“My daughter liked it; she thought it was funny,” Varga said. “But my son just kind of slid down into his chair – I was in uniform and the whole works, and most of the time they don’t see me in uniform, so it was kind of like, ‘That’s your dad? What’s he doing? He’s got a gun on!’ and, you know, yes I do.”

While the types of crimes are changing, so too is the jail’s population.

When Varga first started working there, the jail was, as he says, a jail. Now it has to be so much more.

“When you were bad, you went to the jail,” Varga said.

“But now we are a mental health facility, we have people that go through detox. We turn into a rehab as we’re doing it. ... The average stay for mental health people is 6 to 8 months and can we handle them? Will we handle them? Absolutely. But to have them in the jail for that length of time is not helping that particular individual. They don’t need to  be in a jail, they need to be in a mental hospital.

“It’s a big issue.”

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