In 2016, Kim Foxx was swept into office on a wave of community outrage over the way her predecessor, Anita Alvarez, handled the 2014 police murder of Laquan McDonald. Foxx, who grew up in Cabrini-Green, attended law school at Southern Illinois University and worked as an Assistant State’s Attorney for more than a decade before becoming Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s deputy chief of staff in 2013. Foxx’s campaign for State’s Attorney heavily emphasized criminal justice reform. Her office has declined to prosecute low-level shoplifting and drug cases, established an open data portal for felony cases, and declined to request pretrial detention for nonviolent offenders. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Have you seen an increase in shoplifting or other low-level offenses since you stopped prosecuting these cases as felonies?
No. We’re still prosecuting retail theft as a misdemeanor. What we’ve tried to do is bring Cook County more in line with other states across the country who have a higher felony threshold for retail theft than we do. Our threshold is three hundred dollars, which is one of the lowest in the country. Forty-seven other states have a higher threshold than Illinois, and there have been numerous studies that have demonstrated that even when those states raised their felony retail theft threshold, people were not stealing at a higher amount to accommodate that. However, we do want to make sure that we’re holding people accountable, and doing it in a way that is appropriate for the resources that we have. And we’ll continue to look at retail theft as a misdemeanor, and work with our state legislature, perhaps amending the criminal code to raise the threshold to make it more in line with the rest of the country.
As it relates to drug charges, the sad reality is that we have a tremendous amount of people who are arrested and charged with simple possession of drug cases. This isn’t a criminal justice issue; this is a public health issue, and we decided that we know we are not capable of dealing with public health issues in the criminal justice system. So, where appropriate, we have diverted people out of the system early in the process, or not charged people whose crime is simple possession, because it’s not helpful to them and it doesn’t do anything to keep our communities safer.
Do you have any specific plans for your next term to move other prosecutions from felony-level cases to misdemeanors?
We want to see where we’re using our resources. Those original policy changes came as a result of the fact that we were struggling with violent crime in the city. We continue to struggle with violent crime. Looking at how we were using our prosecutorial resources to address violence, we were spending the majority of our resources on non-violent, low-level offenses. Retail theft was the number one referred prosecution to our office in 2016—a year where we had over 750 people murdered, [and] 4000 people shot. [We did] the same thing with driving on suspended licenses or for failure to pay a ticket, that just made no sense that we were spending so many of our resources being glorified bill collectors. I think our policies are following [the question of] what is our overall mandate? And public safety is first and foremost for us. So that means shifting resources from violent offenses, treating them as misdemeanors or diverting them. That’s what we’ll do, but I don’t have a specific classification; it’s an ongoing evaluation of the data and making sure we’re keeping to our core mission of public safety.
Can you describe the approach your office has taken towards repeat violent offenders, and with regard to gun crimes in particular?
We have to be really intentional about looking at people who commit violent crimes and how they got there. We have to take a holistic approach to this, because here’s the reality: a majority of our defendants who come in on cases of violence have themselves been victims of violent crime. There’s a vicious cycle of victims and defendants inhabiting the same body. We cannot care just when they’re victims and we’re prosecuting the person who has harmed them, and a month later when they become a defendant, we no longer care about the harm that has been caused to them. We are very thoughtful and intentional around looking at trauma and the things that drive people to engage in violent behavior, the need for resources in the community to deal with trauma, to deal with mental health, and to deal with the contributing factors to violence. That’s why we have to look at the drivers of violence, what is it that causes people to engage in this behavior, and not simply respond to violence in a punitive way.
Everyone who has a gun is not someone that I would consider necessarily a violent person, but there are people who have engaged in really destructive behaviors that have caused harm to communities, that we have to make sure that our response is proportionate. What we’ve done in this system is treat everybody the same. What we want to do is figure out the drivers of violence. How do we look at this more holistically, hold people appropriately accountable? And that might mean someone who had a gun case is eligible for diversion, and someone who is a habitual gun offender isn’t. We have to be thoughtful across the board.
In 2016, you said you wanted to assign an independent prosecutor for every police-involved shooting. Can you give us an update on that?
Our office doesn’t have the authority to appoint a special prosecutor; the presiding judge of the criminal court is the only one who can. What we did, however—because I do believe that the public should have faith in the work that we do, and this faith was shaken as a result of a lack of holding police accountable in previous administrations—we went to Springfield and asked the House to have a secondary review of our work. A bill was passed in 2017 that allows the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor (ILSAAP) to have jurisdiction over our office. Historically they had not. Now, if we have an officer-involved shooting, if our decision is to reject charges in that case, the case is sent to the ILSAAP for review.
I will also say that in the first few months of my being in office, we were presented with a few officer-involved shootings. One, Lowell Houser, we charged with first-degree murder, and he was found guilty of second-degree murder in December. And recently, Amtrak officer [LaRoyce] Tankson, who shot someone at Union Station in the back as they were fleeing a pat-down, that case went before a bench trial and last week he was found not guilty.
Can you comment on any plans to prosecute the officers involved in the shooting of Arien Roman on the CTA on February 28?
Our office is actively investigating this case alongside the FBI and we will make a determination based on the facts, evidence, and the law.
In February, a Tribune investigation found that Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans’s analysis of bail reform, which found no increase of violent crime as a result of eliminating pretrial bond, was flawed. Are bail reform measures taken by your office leading to an increase in crime by individuals who are out on bond? What additional actions will your office take to prevent that?
Context matters; we need to make sure people who pose a threat to the public are detained if that is the case. Over the course of the last three years, the effort has been to make sure we do just that: allow people who don’t pose a flight risk, who aren’t a threat, or who are simply incarcerated because they’re poor, to make sure those people are not in our jails, and to make sure people who are a threat are [in jail]. The jail was under a federal consent decree for four decades because of overcrowding. So the attempts to do bail reform are actually long overdue. We are always constantly looking at the data and trends to make sure that we’re on the right path.
I would leave it to Judge Evans—it’s his data, not ours—but one of the things that we were concerned about in that [Tribune] report was that they were looking at misdemeanor cases. They were conflating misdemeanor cases with felony cases. The data and the metrics and the context all matter. Judge Evans just wrote an op-ed that explained that. The fact is, the data analysts who looked at it for the Tribune came out of [the University of] Utah. A number of our academic institutions here—the University of Chicago, Loyola, Northwestern—have all been working on bond reform with us, and their analysis is different from what was presented [in the Tribune]. We have to constantly look and make sure that whatever reform efforts we’re putting into place do not compromise public safety, and act accordingly.
What plans do you have to expand the work of the Convictions Integrity Unit?
We have increased our staffing in conviction integrity by two attorneys. The reality is that people believe in our mission and the credibility of the work that we’re doing. The number of requests to have convictions reviewed has increased multifold. So we do have a capacity issue. The sad reality is that there has been a long history of wrongful convictions in Cook County. And in the last three years, the fact that we’ve vacated over one hundred convictions so far has given people room to believe that we’re serious about our work. We have gotten more funding from the county board for attorneys to put into our conviction integrity unit, and we’ll continue to do that.
We’ve just changed our application to make it more concise. It’s on our website, and we have driven it down to all of the state penitentiaries here in Illinois, so that people who don’t have access to the internet can see it. We’ve put two more people into our post-conviction unit; the difference being conviction integrity are people who claim actual innocence, post-conviction are looking at convictions [where] procedural processes or other things led to someone being convicted for a crime in which we should not have gotten that conviction, not necessarily actual innocence.
At a community meeting in Chinatown, a number of community members expressed frustration that there has been an uptick in crime in Chinatown, which many perceived as being a result of your office’s actions. Can you speak to these concerns?
First of all, I reject the notion that our policies are causing an uptick in crime. I remind people that I wasn’t in office in the nineties or early 2000s; I’ve been here three years. Violent crime was at horrifying peaks in the nineties. It’s come down both locally and nationally. The instinct to try to blame individual entities for crime is political rhetoric. It’s scapegoating. We’ve been making strides because we’ve been working with our partners in law enforcement and, more importantly, our community partners to address crime together. What never should happen is that when we see upticks, our partners step back and say that’s someone else’s fault.
There’s a narrative, particularly from law enforcement, that “Oh, it’s not us, it’s the State’s Attorney.” And that is harmful to the work that we’re trying to do in the community. I understand why people in Chinatown are fearful. There has been an incidence of violence and fear that has permeated as a result of the people that committed the crime. The notion that our office’s policy on not prosecuting people for driving on a suspended license is what’s driving crime is absurd.
What have you done to strengthen the work of the community justice centers?
The purpose of the community justice centers was to have a prosecutor in the neighborhoods that we serve, and allow for people to not have to come to our courthouses to be able to engage with our office. A lot of that work previously had been around, for example, fraud cases, cases in which seniors were being targeted, and the like. What we realized when I came into office was that we had heavy traffic at some of our North Side centers, and lesser traffic at some of our centers on the South Side where we were seeing tremendous violence. So, some of the recalibration has been [around] how do we provide more resources to the South and West Sides to deal with violence.
Even though the original mission of the centers was around availability, we used this as an opportunity to really tackle violence and put our resources proportionate to where the violence was. So, we’ve beefed up working with people on prosecutions of violent offenses and our community justice centers. We have been more engaged in the CAPS meetings and community-based meetings around issues related to violence, and have shifted to more of our resources from the North Side to the South and West Sides to be able to have more impact where the violence is occurring.
A lot of the work in the 2016 election was driven by Black and brown community activists who were organizing against the incumbent State’s Attorney, and who were campaigning for you and showing up in many other ways. How is your 2020 campaign different now that you’re the incumbent?
A lot of the energy in 2016 was rallying around what happened in the case of Laquan McDonald. It was, for many people who had not paid attention to the criminal justice system, the first time a lot of people were asking, “what is the role of the prosecutor in police accountability?” So there was a tremendous amount of energy—that I’m incredibly grateful for—that illuminated this work in a way that a campaign consultant couldn’t. They took it to the streets and organized and rallied. And I think this time the energy is different. There is not a catalytic event, like the death of a young man at the hands of police.
But I think people are getting energized around the fact that we have done policies that have benefited Black and brown communities. That’s what is under attack here. I think it’s become apparent for a lot of people that all of the attention on the Smollett case was meant to be distracting from the fact that we stopped prosecuting marijuana, or vacated hundreds of thousands of convictions, or the work on bail reform, or the work on driving on suspended licenses or retail theft. The communities that are impacted by violence see us at these [community] meetings, know that we’re there because we prioritize Black lives of people in these neighborhoods. I think it has gotten them understanding that there’s real choices to be made in this race. Is it a different context than 2016? Absolutely. Are the stakes just as high? More so, now than ever.
Kiran Misra is a journalist and policy researcher. She last wrote for the Weekly about the Invisible Institute’s investigation of the CPD shooting of Harith Augustus.
Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last interviewed Kina Collins, a candidate for Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.