Q&A with Jackson County State’s Attorney candidate Joe Cervantez

By Nick Hasenstab, Staff Reporter

Joe Cervantez  served in the Carbondale community as an attorney for eight years and will be running against the incumbent State’s Attorney Michael Carr who has been serving since he was elected in 2012.

Before voting opens up on Sept. 24, the Daily Egyptian spoke with Cervantez about his past and what he plans to do if he is elected as the State’s Attorney.

DE: What are your goals if you were to be elected into the State’s Attorney’s Office?

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Cervantez said the centerpiece of his platform is to establish a drug court in Jackson County.

“There is no Drug Court in Jackson County and we have a diverse community in Jackson County; it’s time that we stop prosecuting poverty, stop prosecuting mental health illness and most of all, stop prosecuting addiction,” Cervantez said.  

Cervantez said he wants to adjust how the State Attorney’s Office works with the police department to fix the issue of racial discrimination that is seen in police departments across the country.  

“Lastly, I have to be able to work with juveniles and get diversion programs to make sure kids don’t get involved in the system in the first place,” Cervantez said.  “We don’t want to charge them if we don’t have to; we want programs to send them to so that we divert them out of the criminal justice system.”

DE: Why did you want to run for the State’s Attorney’s Office?

Cervantez: “In Saline County I decided I would run for State’s Attorney one day somewhere, and that was because I started working the juvenile docket. I started running into problems with kids and I kind of saw them as the same type of kid that I was when I was younger,” Cervantez said.  “There weren’t a lot of programs for them, so I swore that I was going to do it one day and try to help the kids around here get some of the programs they have in other communities.” 

DE: Where did you grow up?

Cervantez: “I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, actually in Gurnee, Ill. until I was 10 year old.  My dad was my only parent until I was 10, and I lost him, and I started couch surfing after that,”  Cervantez said.  “I went to my sisters’ houses, aunts’ houses and you know different family members. I jumped around all my life, I was in the juvenile system off and on.”

Cervantez said while growing up he had lived in some bad neighborhoods, and eventually dropped out of high school.

DE: What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Cervantez: “I dropped out of high school and was working all the time and getting in trouble and some coaches kind of steered me in the right direction and eventually the marines took me in,”  Cervantez said.  

DE: What did you do while in the Marine Corps.?

Cervantez: “I served as an infantry platoon sergeant and an infantry leader in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008,” Cervantez said.  “And I got hired as a NATO weapons advisor or contractor in 2009.”

DE: Where did you go to college?

Cervantez: “I did my bachelor’s, my grad and my law school all at SIU,” Cervantez said.  “I’m one of those people that Carbondale kind of opened their arms to and I just kind of stayed here. It’s such a diverse community so I just never really wanted to leave.”

DE: How long have you been practicing law?

“I graduated [law school] in 2012 and then I went straight to the prosecutor’s office,” Cervantez said. 

He worked in a prosecutor’s office for Chuck Garnati, and after that he worked as Assistant State’s Attorney in Williamson County and later in Saline County.

DE: What kind of cases do you specialize in?

Cervantez: “I left the prosecutor’s office to start a law firm and I have three attorneys that work with me and I am a general practice attorney, what we [lawyers] call ourselves are ‘trial attorneys,’” Cervantez said.  “I’ll do anything that goes to trial, I do a lot of criminal, I do a lot of civil, and I do federal.”

Cervantez compares being a trial attorney to being a salesman who can sell anything from cars to vacuum cleaners.

“I’m kind of known for bigger criminal cases, I’ve done some murders in Jackson County and Alexander County. I’m known for some bigger civil cases. I’ve done wrongful terminations cases and some civil rights things, so I’m very active in the trial community,” Cervantez said.

DE: What is one case that you are especially proud of? 

Cervantez: “A young man coming up from a Missouri county and he had 16 grams of cannabis in his backpack, and I was a defense attorney and his family called me,” Cervantez said.  “He got pulled over, he had a gun that was registered and legal in Missouri and he was a resident of Missouri. He had 16 g. of cannabis but this was last fall so we already knew that 30 g. was going to be legal, so he only had 16 g.”

Cervantez said because of the gun that was in the young man’s possession, what was supposed to be a $300 fine was turned into a Class X felony, which would have been punishable by up to 30 years in a department of correction. 

“I entered as a defense attorney and was adamant about getting this dismissed and getting him out of jail,” Cervantez said.  “I worked with the media, I worked with Civil Rights activists and I worked with the prosecutors. He was in jail for 45 days, $4,500 of taxpayers money all over about $100 of cannabis, not even.”

Cervantez said eventually the young man was released from jail and was charged for a misdemeanor, however this young man was looking to get into the Air Force, and the charge of a Class X has ruined some of his future prospects.  This is why Cervantez said he has taken several cases that deal with overcharging, in order to prevent these things from happening.

DE: What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter Movement?

Cervantez: “I’ve been working on Civil Rights issues and defending people over the last few years and seen how the system needs to be changed,” Cervantez said.  “After George Floyd things kind of blew up, but this is a fight I’ve seen for a long time, and I’m from a neighborhood that has been impacted by violent crimes and by poverty.”  

Cervantez said people could protest and march on police stations all they want, but the best only place that can make actual changes is the State’s Attorney’s Office, and that’s what his goal is.

The DE will also be reaching out to State’s Attorney Mike Carr for another Q&A.

Staff reporter Nick Hasenstab can be reached at nhasenstab@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter at @NickHasenstab. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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