Lake County prosecutor candidates square off

BALDWIN — With Lake County Prosecutor Craig Cooper's four-year term ending at the end of this year, he will need to run for reelection against challenger Belinda Barbier.

As each are running in separate parties, they will both be unchallenged during the August primary elections and — barring a surprise write-in candidate — will face off in the general election in November. Both are trying to get their message across to the people of Lake County and both believe they can bring something unique to the office. This week, they are sharing their thoughts with The Lake County Star.

Craig Cooper

Running for reelection is Craig Cooper. Cooper has served as the Lake County prosecutor since his election in 2012 after serving as interim prosecutor for a month following the retirement of the his predecessor. Cooper said he believes his office is doing the best work possible for the people of Lake County and wants to continue doing so for another term.

"I'm asking for people to reelect me as I take pride in each day I've been prosecutor and I've done my best to represent the people of Lake County," said Cooper. "I want to continue on that positive track."

Cooper said he is the right person for the job because the needs of the position require a certain type of perspective and attitude to do the job correctly. He said he has that perspective and attitude.

"Being a prosecutor in Lake County — or any county — you have to have the right temperament and be able to handle the stress of the job," remarked Cooper. "You have a lot of power as prosecutor and you have to wield that power fairly and responsibly and be a person who can hear both sides to a story and do the just and right thing for all parties involved."

Cooper has a law degree from Michigan State University and served as assistant prosecutor under his predecessor Mike Riley. Previously, he worked in the fields of employee benefits law, real estate law and was performed general practice work for a law firm. He came to criminal law when he became assistant prosecutor in Lake County.

"As prosecutor, I've handled a wide variety of criminal and civil cases on behalf of the county," explained Cooper. "I've helped prosecute criminal sexual abuse cases, drug cases and a wide variety of assault cases as well as a case where we tried someone for accessory after the fact for murder."

While Barbier has criticized him for accepting plea deals on too many cases and avoiding the courtroom, Cooper countered he only will take a plea if he believes it means justice is being done and it provides a proper conclusion to a case. He maintains plea deals are a necessary part of being a prosecutor.

Cooper said his reasons for running are simple: he likes to see justice done.

"I like holding people accountable for their actions in a fair way and I want to pursue justice," said Cooper.

Belinda Barbier

Cooper's challenger is Belinda Barbier, who was the assistant prosecutor prior to her running for office. Barbier said she has a passion for the justice system and believes the Lake County office needs to be run in a more proactive and compassionate manner.

"I am running because my two years as assistant prosecutor showed me people have given up faith in the prosecutor's office and justice system in Lake County and I want to restore that," said Barbier. "People have told me 'why bother? Nothing gets done' when they are pursuing a case or reporting a crime."

Barbier said she intends to correct this by increasing the focus on crime victims and working with them during the course of criminal cases they were involved in.

"We want to get victims in and work with them and explain to them what's happening with a case and why those things are happening," explained Barbier. "When warrants come in, the victim advocate would immediately meet with the victim and discuss the case. We want to more directly help people put their lives back together."

She believes many Lake County residents have grown cynical and feel let down by the local legal system and she said this is because the department is not willing enough to take cases to trial or spend the time necessary to bring about proper closure to cases.

"Right now, everything is plea deals and nothing goes to trial," remarked Barbier. "If there is a good case, it should go forward. If jail time is appropriate we should pursue that. We shouldn't be afraid of the justice system. People have gotten complacent and we aren't trying to meet the standards we should be holding ourselves to."

Barbier also said she wishes to improve the social media presence and online resources of the county's justice system and work closer with the Lake County Sheriff's Department, the Michigan State Police and other municipalities' prosecutor offices.

A Michigan native, Barbier practiced law in North Carolina and Colorado before returning home. She cites an extensive record in criminal justice and a passion for the subject as to why she wants to be prosecutor.

"My background is criminal law, ever since I was working for the Grand Rapids Police Department when I was 19-years-old," she said. "I've handled three murder cases, sexual misconduct cases and everything else from traffic violations on up in three states. I love working in the justice system. I am part of this community and I want to be an active part in it."