One year after being elected and sworn into office on a reform platform, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is making progress—but, not surprisingly, has more to do to accomplish those reforms, according to a new report.
The report is a joint effort of the People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago, two allied groups that worked for Foxx’s election; and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, which advocates for criminal justice reform. In the past year, People’s Lobby has engaged Foxx in large and small meetings and “encouraged her to make bold moves to decrease incarceration,” according to the report. Chicago Appleseed has pressed for bail reform, and its volunteers have observed hundreds of hours of Bond Court proceedings in recent months.
The report focuses on five areas in which Foxx pledged, during her campaign and her transition, to take action. Yet it is silent on other major concerns, including prosecution of police misconduct and addressing wrongful convictions. Public dissatisfaction with how Foxx’s predecessor, Anita Alvarez, handled those two areas helped Foxx win office.
Certainly, one year is not enough to transform a bureaucracy like the state’s attorney’s office, much less the broader criminal justice system. As the report emphasizes, Foxx faces an array of obstacles: many of the hundreds of attorneys in her office come from the “tough on crime” school; other players within the criminal justice system, from cops to judges, often don’t share her reform agenda; and significant budget cuts since she was sworn in.
But the issues are so critical – to communities, to families and to individuals, including the innocent who may be languishing behind bars – that all deliberate speed is called for.
Foxx won the March 2016 Democratic primary amid the upheaval after the city was ordered to release video of the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. Foxx defeated incumbent Alvarez by a 2-to-1 margin. Nationally, it was a time of increased public attention to police killings of African Americans and growing disenchantment with mass incarceration. Other reformers won election as local prosecutors in St. Louis, Orlando, Tampa, Houston and Denver, including several African Americans.
Given Cook County’s prominence and notoriety – for segregation, for corruption, for police violence and for wrongful convictions – and the “law and order” administration in power in Washington D.C., Foxx’s successes have larger implications for other local efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
Of the five areas covered by the Peoples Lobby-Chicago Appleseed report, Foxx seems to be making some progress in at least three. She gets credit for acknowledging the importance of bond reform and for making minor changes, but the report urges her to press for more: full implementation of local reforms and permanent statewide reform.
Foxx has changed some charging practices to reduce incarceration; in particular, she raised the threshold for felony retail theft from $300 to $1,000 and ended prosecutions for driving on a suspended license due to unpaid fines. She also “appears to be taking active steps” to end over-charging of defendants—a tactic used to win convictions by increasing pressure for plea deals—by retraining prosecutors and updating standards, according to the report. Yet details on these efforts have not been made public, a move that the report calls for.
In October, Foxx’s office took a step toward greater transparency by releasing “a groundbreaking report” that for the first time provided data on 30,000 felony cases for 2016. That report included information on case dispositions and sentences, with breakdowns by race, age, and geography. “Criminal justice advocates all over the country are grateful for this unique and truly innovative effort at transparency and accountability on Foxx’s part,” the People’s Lobby-Chicago Appleseed report states. The groups want 2017 data released by next January, and quarterly releases of data in 2018.
In two other areas, the report finds Foxx has yet to make significant progress. She has pledged to protect non-citizens who may be at risk of being exposed in court proceedings. But her office has yet to release specific proposals, and prosecutors continue to make note of defendants’ countries of origin in Bond Court–creating a record that could expose them to immigration repercussions, according to the report. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sent immigration agents to courthouses, prompting a denunciation of the tactic by the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The report recommends that Foxx implement a policy directing assistant state’s attorneys to consider alternatives that would avoid exposing defendants to potential immigration charges.
On the war on drugs, Foxx has repeatedly expressed support for treating drug abuse “through the public health system rather than the criminal justice system,” but she hasn’t taken steps to change policies on handling drug charges. Her office has even continued to allow police to charge felony drug offenses without oversight from the state’s attorney’s felony review process, according to the report, which recommends implementing diversion programs such as those used in Seattle and New York City in cases of drug possession and low-level distribution. According to the report, Foxx has agreed to work with the People’s Lobby and Chicago Appleseed “to create a pilot program for non-prosecution of some drug crimes.”
In a statement, the state’s attorney’s office reiterated its commitment to functioning as “an office that values justice over convictions,” and said a forthcoming report will detail progress on priorities identified in the transition report and present plans for future efforts.
Yet the People’s Lobby-Chicago Appleseed report doesn’t address two high-profile issues: police shootings and wrongful convictions. Neither issue is addressed in Foxx’s transition report, and Foxx backed off a campaign pledge to request a special prosecutor to investigate all police shootings. Instead, she backed legislation providing for the Office of State Appellate Prosecutor to review cases in which the state’s attorney decides against charging an officer. Civil rights attorneys objected that the state office has a poor track record, and that reviews should be conducted by an entity that is independent of law enforcement.
Earlier in her term, Foxx charged two law enforcement officers: an Amtrak policeman who shot a man in the back when he ran after being stopped for allegedly smoking marijuana, and an off-duty officer who shot an unarmed neighbor in an argument. Yet her office decided not to charge Officer Robert Rialmo in the highly publicized, controversial shootings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones. And she opposed a motion for a special prosecutor in the killing of an unarmed man, Flint Farmer; the shooting was the third in six months, and the second fatal one, for the officer involved.
On wrongful convictions, Foxx has exonerated a number of defendants over the course of the year. Last month, 15 men were exonerated in drug cases involving corrupt former police Sgt. Ronald Watts and his officers. That same week, four other wrongfully convicted men were freed. In the case of Arthur Brown, prosecutors were set to challenge his successful motion for a new trial, but dropped that effort after defense attorneys appealed directly to Foxx.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Foxx pledged to re-investigate hundreds of convictions resulting from arrests by Watts and his officers, but cited extreme staff shortages in her post-conviction and conviction integrity units. She also said her office is examining each conviction linked to Det. Reynaldo Guevara, who’s been accused of coercing confessions and witness statements in scores of cases. So far, her office has defended convictions based on Guevara’s cases, though five such convictions have been overturned in the past year. Guevara now refuses to testify in court proceedings.
“There are a lot of cases to go through,” said Karen Daniel, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. “We would hope to see her take this momentum and continue with it.”
Overall, Foxx appears to be seriously committed to fundamental reform but facing significant headwinds. That makes the watchdog efforts of groups like the People’s Lobby and Chicago Appleseed, and many other civil rights and community groups, all the more important.