URBANA – Having administered lie-detector tests for 40 years, Clarence Romig is a fairly good judge of character.
That's part of what made the Urbana man so good at the volunteer activity that he's been forced to give up due to deteriorating eyesight.
Romig, 78, has been a screener for the Champaign County State's Attorney's Office Adult Diversion program since at least 1982. Launched in 1978, diversion is an informal program of supervision for people who have been arrested for a minor crime.
Marty Sheridan, one of the three paid state's attorney employees who run the program, said although the program is voluntary, participants must agree to take responsibility for what they've been accused of doing.
"Just about everybody does community service. People may be required to pay money for lost, stolen or broken things. Some people may have to do drug or alcohol evaluations and any required counseling," Sheridan explained.
Those who successfully complete the program avoid, or are "diverted" from, being charged with a crime. In 2006, about 700 people participated in lieu of prosecution.
Romig is one of about 40 people representing a cross-section of the community who screen individuals for admission, something Sheridan says is an invaluable service for him and fellow employees Kathy McGee and Marge Carney.
"We think it's very important that the person accused of the offense sees how their behavior has affected the community at large. It gives them a chance to see how other people view what they did," Sheridan said.
"We're here to be supportive. Everyone (among the screeners) has their own bent on how they approach people. Sometimes the soft touch works better. Clarence is probably somewhere in the middle. He may have been more conservative in the beginning but he's very straight on with people. He'll tell them, 'You need to take care of business. We want you to succeed in life and we want to give you an opportunity to do that,'" Sheridan said.
"Our job is not to chastise or to reprimand," said Romig. "Our job is to find out if the individual accepts responsibility for the wrongdoing. Our job is to bring them back to reality as to what they have done that was wrong and how they plan to keep from doing the same offense or worse again," he said.
In his 25 years of screening, Romig said the majority of candidates have been young people who did something stupid while intoxicated.
"We're having a lot more things such as drinking underage or traffic offenses at a very young age," Romig said. "The messages young people are getting are not the kind to prevent them from getting in trouble. They might bust somebody's car window or see an antenna sticking out of the back of the car and break it off."
After almost 20 years in the Army as a military police investigator – a career that took him all over the world – Romig attended Michigan State to work on a master's degree. He also taught criminalistics there.
The University of Illinois Police Training Institute then invited him to come to Champaign in 1971 where he taught basic police training, first full-time then part-time, until about 1983. He also taught at Indiana State University in Terre Haute but maintained his home in Urbana – the same house for 37 years.
His areas of police expertise included administering and evaluating polygraph exams, voice print identification, photography, fingerprinting and making composite drawings of suspects. In retirement, Romig has been active in the Criminal Investigation Division Association, a group of former Army and a few other military service investigators. He reviews books for the group's quarterly newsletter.
Sometime in the early 1980s he saw newspaper articles about the need for screeners for the diversion program.
"I thought ... That's simple enough to do. There were a lot of volunteers. Some discovered they weren't qualified or interested once they realized what it was," he said, adding that the work was a way for him to keep connected to young people without having to chase after them. For years, he also worked with young people in scouting and in other volunteer capacities, he said.
Sheridan said Romig might be the longest-serving volunteer screener. Although Carney tries to rotate the duties among the volunteers so as not to burn anyone out, Sheridan said there are weeks when Romig may be the only volunteer who can make it in. Three-member screening panels are optimal.
"Clarence is one of those people that if someone gets sick or there's a cancellation, you can call him at the last minute and he'll hustle over and try to fill in," Sheridan said.
Having lived at Clark-Lindsey Village in Urbana for the last two years, Romig said he knows he can get the bus to downtown Urbana at 11:03 a.m. in time to make the noon screening sessions.
Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, has kept him from driving for about 30 years. But due to a recent sharp decline in his vision, Romig said he can no longer see well enough to read. And he believes that a potential program participant who might see the white cane that he uses while walking in traffic might think less of him or his abilities.
Romig said he and the other screeners don't usually identify themselves to the diversion candidates. He recalled one angry man who asked the screeners their names in a menacing way. The other two screeners gave him their first names but Romig looked the man in the eye and gave him a false name.
"The guy was trying to dominate and that was the wrong darn thing to do. Ultimately, we got him to come across. He was just one of those strange, dumb young guys who thought he could impress people with his position. There's some people who think they're one step ahead of everyone else," he said.