Before Philadelphia had Larry Krasner, Chicago had Kim Foxx. The progressive prosecutor beat an incumbent in 2016 by campaigning on reforming the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the equivalent of Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office.
Foxx was elected in a tough year for Chicago. The city was still reeling from the 2015 killing of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a police officer, and in turmoil over the city government’s effort to prevent the public from seeing dash-cam footage of the incident. In 2016, Chicago also saw an unprecedented increase in gun violence: Homicides spiked 56% in one year.
But Chicago has also had a recent success story: a three-year reduction in homicides. Last week, the Inquirer editorial board spoke with stakeholders to understand how Chicago has tackled homicides, and what lessons there might be for Philadelphia.
Foxx has been a force for change in Chicago. In her first three years in office, she dismissed thousands of cases, including felonies and drug cases, according to a Marshall Project analysis. Foxx also instructed her prosecutors to recommend no bail for people charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies who do not pose a risk to public safety.
Since Foxx became Chicago’s chief prosecutor, homicides and shootings have dropped by nearly 40%. Chicago’s experience with Foxx casts doubt on a persistent critique of Larry Krasner’s reforms in Philadelphia: that criminal justice reform is mutually exclusive with public safety.
I asked State Attorney Foxx about the relationship between reform and violence prevention efforts. Below is an excerpt of our conversation lightly edited for length and clarity.
What were your priorities coming into office in 2017?
2016 was a pretty egregious year, the bloodiest we had in Chicago since about 1999. ... I ran that same year when we were seeing these awful levels of violence. There was a tremendous amount of distrust between communities and law enforcement, particularly within the African American community. Our race was really built around accountability, up to the Laquan McDonald case, and acknowledging and owning that we had a criminal justice system that for many people was not credible or legitimate. My efforts were twofold: Clearly we had a public safety issue with these homicides and shootings. And we could not do that without reinforcing credibility in the system, which meant we had to focus on criminal justice reform at the same time.
What’s an example of how criminal justice reform could reinforce the credibility of the criminal justice system?
A lot of people who live in neighborhoods impacted by violence know people who have gone to jail, for low-level nonviolent offenses, and sat there because they didn’t have money to get out. To them it proves the system doesn’t care. If it’s got my brother there for stealing a pair of shoes and gives him a $20,000 bond — you’re punishing him before he even gets to trial.
By showing that those are not fair and just practices, and demonstrating that [point] repeatedly, we can go in those neighborhoods and say: How can we help you resolve these conflicts in the criminal justice system and not on the street?
So you can’t decouple them. You cannot flood neighborhoods with police and have a system that people deem to be illegitimate. It’s not going to have long-term sustainability for communities.
Every so often someone who was not assigned bail, for example, will commit a violent crime. Some use these cases to argue against reform. How do you respond?
The fact of the matter is, out of 100 cases, there might be one awful incident. We know that is a real possibility. But we cannot make 99 people suffer out of fear for the one. The easiest thing to do is keep everybody locked up. And then I can assure you that we won’t have to worry about the person who got out and did something, because no one gets out.
But that is not a legitimate justice system. When something happens, we have to acknowledge it is awful, but it happened. We have to not bow to the pressure to [then] “change everything,” because that’s how we’ve gotten into this predicament in the first place. ... We have to be driven by facts, not feeling.
What’s an example of using facts and data over feeling?
For example, in 2016 — as we laid out, the bloodiest year we had — when I looked at how we were using our prosecutorial resources, I found out the cases most referred to us from police for prosecution outside of drug cases that they directly file. It wasn’t gun cases. It wasn’t shooting. It was low-level retail theft. Shoplifting. How do I justify to a city that is weeping from the deaths of hundreds of our residents that we’ve been using our resources on nonviolent shoplifting cases?
So you raised the threshold for felony theft once you came in office. What did that change?
We then were able to take attorneys out of the courtroom into our Gun Crimes Strategies Unit. The unit was designed to have attorneys out in the neighborhoods where we were seeing high incidence of violence. Put those lawyers on the ground with our law enforcement partners and community leaders — with people who ran the block club, who had after-school programs, who could tell you who were the good kids and which kids had fallen off the path — to establish relationships and gather real-time human intelligence around who were the real drivers of violence. We could only do that when we could reallocate resources away from nonviolent offenses.
What is the progressive way to prosecute a gun case?
You have to look at the individual facts of a case. I think part of the struggle has been, people for political points want to say: We should treat every gun case the same, everyone who holds a gun should be locked up for as long as possible. And I don’t think that’s pragmatic. That’s not practical, that’s not justice. I don’t think you treat the person who believes, based on their circumstances, that [carrying a gun] is in their personal safety best interests, the same way you treat someone who demonstrated that they want to use their gun for violent purposes.
Is there a spectrum? Absolutely. As there is in all offenses we see. I don’t think that you close the possibility of diversion for someone just because it’s a weapons offense. And I don’t think you automatically assume that everyone with a weapons offense should get the maximum sentence. This is all nuance. And the one place where we tend to forget about nuances is the justice system.
Three years in, how is your relationship with law enforcement partners looking?
We have a healthy respect for our partners in this work and recognize that we may not always agree. I recognize that in doing this work, there are still people who point fingers at me about everything, but that’s not helpful. I firmly believe that the people who live in this city who are concerned about gun violence are sickened when they see their leaders fighting with each other about petty politics. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t petty politics, that the FOP here hasn’t made it their mission to attack these reforms and attack me personally. I just don’t have time for that.
I think many who may have been skeptical in 2017 are far less skeptical in 2020. Many who have said the same things I was hearing — “All this is going to lead to lawlessness" — have not seen the sky fall down, but have in fact seen cooperation with witnesses go up, their homicide clearance rate go up, that these reforms have worked.