Illustration by Shane Tolentino

Meet the Candidates: Bill Conway

The Weekly sits down with the former prosecutor running for Cook County State’s Attorney

Bill Conway is one of three Democratic challengers to incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. He is running on his experience as a naval intelligence officer investigating the Taliban’s funding from narcotics sales, which he says will inform his efforts to remove illegal guns from Chicago’s streets. Conway, who was a prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s office for six years, is also trying to differentiate himself from Foxx by presenting a plan for rooting out public corruption across the city. He contrasts Foxx’s handling of the Jussie Smollett case with that of his own client, Candace Clark, which is some of the only legal work he has engaged in since leaving the office in 2012. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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What does justice look like to you?

I think justice requires making sure that you have the right balance between punishing people and making sure that people can get their life back together and become productive members of society.

Given that not everyone in the system is a nonviolent offender, what is your plan to address the system as a whole, not just low-level offenses?

In total, what I want to do is bring about balanced criminal justice reform. And when I say that, we have to remember what the purpose of jail is. Jail is a place for people that are a danger to the community. And if somebody is not a danger to the community, but they’re poor, or addicted, or mentally ill, jail is not a place for those folks. But by the same token, if somebody commits a violent crime or a crime with a gun, I think that person should go to jail.

 What metrics or insights are you using to inform your decisions about who is a danger to the community?

In the sense that we can use statistics and data in the criminal justice system, that’s certainly a good thing to combat things like systemic racism. But I would say we should look holistically at what the person is charged with in the current offense as well as their criminal background to determine if they’re a danger to society.

How will your service as a naval intelligence officer inform your approach to gun interdiction here in Illinois?

The job I was given as head of the Afghan mission team was figuring out where does the Taliban get its money from. We wanted to find that out so we could attack those money sources so they couldn’t buy weapons to attack us. And that required us to work not only across various branches of the military, but also across agencies. We worked with the CIA, the State Department, Treasury, the DEA, and were able to bring together the resources of the federal government to do that. [In Illinois,] it’s really the focus on getting after and disrupting the supply chain. Somebody who is caught committing a crime with a gun probably bought that gun from their friend, who brought it out of the trunk of a car with seven to ten guns in it. Those probably came from a house with thirty or forty guns [which] came off a truck with one hundred and fifty to two hundred guns in it. What we need to spend time doing is working our way up that supply chain.

A 2017 gun trace report found that two of every five guns used in crimes and recovered by CPD that year came from dealers in suburban Cook County. Do you have a plan to go after legal gun dealers who are the source of these straw purchases?

To the extent that anyone is enabling straw purchases that allow our neighborhoods to be flooded with guns, yes. If they’re not following the law, we’re going to go after them criminally or civilly.

Given your emphasis on your military background, how would you address community concerns about the implications of taking a militaristic approach to law enforcement?

What I’m really talking about is intelligence and earnest focus on the supply chain. I’m not talking about weaponizing anybody. I’m talking about a real focus on tracking the money and suppliers, so we can get to the real gun traffickers who bring all these guns into our neighborhoods. I think we all know the people that bring these guns into our neighborhoods are not from the neighborhoods. Chicago is not Afghanistan, and nothing irritates me more about our current president than when he compares Chicago to Afghanistan. As somebody who has spent time in Afghanistan, it’s a war-torn nation. Certainly we have our challenges in Chicago, but it is a beautiful and vibrant city.

Your father is a major donor to your campaign, and his company contracts with weapons dealers. How will that affect your ability to be impartial?

I obviously love my dad, but I never worked at his firm, so I’m not so familiar with their investments. I spent the bulk of my time in public service at the State’s Attorney’s Office and in the military. I can certainly promise you that, when elected, I’m not going to owe anybody anything as a result of that. It’s hard to imagine this ever happening, but if anything involving my dad or [his] firm ever came before the State’s Attorney’s Office, I would certainly recuse myself.

What is your plan for bail reform—what parts of the system would you be interested in overhauling, and what parts would you want to keep?

In general, I think bond reform is a good thing to the extent that we’re not putting people in jail who are not a danger to the community. If they’re poor, or addicted, or mentally ill, they’re not a danger to the community. That happens all too frequently today. At the end of last year, there were 259 people in Cook County jail who could have been bonded out for less than a thousand dollars. You spend about $160 a night housing most folks, and forty percent of the felonies prosecuted in Cook County are drug cases. Drug possession is much more of a public health issue than one that can be handled in the criminal justice system. We know that Cook County jail is the largest mental health clinic in Illinois, and maybe the nation. Clearly there’s something wrong in our community when that’s the case. But I also think if someone commits a crime with a gun, if somebody commits a violent crime, I think that person should go to jail. And the state’s attorney’s office can do a lot better job in advocating for that.

Do you support the abolition of cash bail?

Yes. I am for ending cash bail because it makes no sense to me that if two people commit the same crime, one person can buy their way out of jail and the other can’t. That’s not right. The criminal justice system is supposed to be blind to that.

What was your motivation for taking on Candace Clark’s case last year? [Ed. note: Conway represented Clark—the only client Conway has represented since 2012 who was not a member of his family—after she was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report. The judge in Clark’s case compared it to that of actor Jussie Smollett, who was similarly charged, and Clark has since appeared in a Conway campaign ad.]

I took Candace’s case long before I was a candidate, and certainly long before I decided to run for State’s Attorney. I read an article about it in the Sun-Times, and I said, that’s not right what’s happening to her. The judge said that she was not getting the same deal that Jussie Smollett was. As it turned out, he had to forfeit his bond, which was the value of about five minutes of TV time, and got credit for sixteen hours of community service. With Candace, we had to go to court every month; she visits her probation officer every month; she has to maintain a job, and if she doesn’t, she gets ninety-six hours of community service; she has to pay significant restitution. The unequal justice there isn’t right, because the politically connected person got one deal, and the hourly wage earner got another.   

Have you taken any other cases pro bono as a defense attorney?

When I got out of the State’s Attorney’s office [in 2012], I took some cases then where I was pro bono. But you’re taking me back a bit. Prior to that, when I was in law school, I was in the Georgetown Criminal Justice Clinic, and they’re defending people pro bono all the time. I had a great experience defending people.

What do you expect your relationship as State’s Attorney will be with the Fraternal Order of Police?

When I was in the State’s Attorney’s office [as an assistant prosecutor] I had the pleasure of working with hundreds if not over a thousand excellent Chicago and suburban police officers, people that would live on coffee for five days to identify a perpetrator, or people that cried with victims after their shift. [These are] really great, law-abiding police officers and I certainly expect to support those folks. Additionally, while I was in the office I also prosecuted three non-law-abiding police officers. So, my relationship with the police, I think, will be good, but I will be firm in the sense that I will support law-abiding police and I will hold non-law-abiding police accountable.

Kim Foxx has been really up-front about highlighting the racial disparities in the criminal justice system in Chicago. Would you also do that? 

Absolutely, I will highlight the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. In fact, if you look at the 2017 State’s Attorney’s report, what it shows is that if someone was being sentenced and they were white, there was a forty percent chance they’d go to prison. If they were Hispanic, there was a forty-four percent chance they would go to prison, and if they were Black, there was a fifty-eight percent chance. And that’s not right.

What sets you apart from Kim Foxx?

I want to provide earnest focus to getting after this supply chain that brings all these guns here. Last year, over 10,000 guns came into Chicago, and that’s why it’s very important that we really spend time getting after the supply chain. And when I say we need to get politics out of the [State’s Attorney’s] Office, I’m really talking about the public corruption in the sense that we are going to spend time making sure that we are holding our public officials accountable. 

I could go on and on about other things that we’re going to try and do to improve the system, in terms of making it easier for people to get expungements, lowering court fees when we can, really trying to think about drug crime, giving people credit who have done defense work when they’re applying to the office, so it’s really a great number of things.

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Kiran Misra is a writer for the Weekly primarily covering criminal justice and policing in Chicago. She last covered the Invisible Institute’s Architecture Biennial installation on the killing of Harith Augustus for the Weekly.

Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last interviewed candidates for Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.

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