Lake Criminal Court Judge Thomas Stefaniak has been there, done that.
There’s not much he didn’t see while growing up in Calumet City and later moving to Hammond.
That’s why he might be a near-perfect fit to take over as Lake Juvenile Court judge.
Stefaniak knows crime and its cause.
When he graduated from Valparaiso University Law School in 1990, he went to work for the Lake County prosecutor.
He spent five years there handling drug cases brought by the Lake County Drug Task Force.
There’s much a young prosecutor can learn from those kinds of cases.
It doesn’t take long to see the impact of drugs on a young person who can readily become immersed in the drug culture on the street – first as a user, then as a thief to support a habit. Some often become major dealers who enjoy the big money that’s derived from destroying lives.
Stefaniak also saw the impact drug-abusing parents have on children and teens. He saw the neglect and the abuse.
That experience as a prosecutor had Stefaniak well prepared to become one of the four Lake Criminal Court judges in 2001.
Stefaniak pretty much saw it all from the criminal division bench.
He presided more than 250 trials, sentenced four people to life in prison and issued one death sentence among the 2,000 felony cases he handled.
Many of those felony cases involved men and women who had problems as juveniles.
Stefaniak had a reputation for being a compassionate prosecutor and judge. And, if there is an ingredient needed for dealing with juveniles, it’s compassion.
Upon the announcement that he would be shifting courts, Stefaniak said, “I’m looking forward to working with the kids and the new challenges.”
There also is a story tucked within the announcement that Stefaniak is changing courts.
It’s not easy being a criminal court judge. They deal with the dregs of society on a daily basis. They see what society has done to some people, while on the other hand, there never was hope for others.
That has to weigh on a judge.
I believe that is what happened with Lake Criminal Court Judge Richard “Duke” Maroc, who gave up his judgeship a few years back.
Maroc, like Stefaniak, was a compassionate judge.
There are all kinds of judges. Some are great legal scholars. Others are tough. And some have great compassion. Stefaniak is compassionate.
It takes a lot to be a judge in Lake County. That is particularly true in juvenile court where a judge – in many cases – is dealing with dysfunctional families, crumbling schools, a lack of teen employment and dangerous streets. Those are heavy odds.
Stefaniak should do well.