Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is the first African American woman to lead the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the country. An advocate for criminal justice reform, Kim Foxx has implemented policies to create equity within the legal system. Her critics have accused her of being soft on crime. Often the subject of attacks rooted in racism and sexism, Foxx has remained steadfast in her goals of reform, equity, and increased public safety.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx recently spoke with the Chicago Defender about the criticisms and attacks she’s received, the challenges of changing the system, the root causes of violence, and why public safety cannot completely be achieved without criminal justice reform.
ON BEING “SOFT ON CRIME”
Chicago Defender: You have been attacked for being soft on crime or for allowing criminals to be released back into the streets. What is the process from arrest to filing charges to jail time?
SA Kim Foxx: I think there’s a lot of confusion about what we do and especially in times of crisis, people want answers, and some elected officials don’t want to be responsible for their role in it. If a crime is committed, it is up to the police to investigate who committed the crime and to make an arrest. If the police, make an arrest, and I say if, because what we have found, for example, in shooting cases, the clearance rate or the rate by which they have had someone who has shot somebody, and found out who they were, is around 20%. That means eight out of 10 people who are engaged in shootings are not caught. So, when the police arrest someone, they refer them to our office to decide as to whether we have enough evidence to file charges. Our offices look at everything. Is there video, DNA, witnesses, was it self-defense? We also must see what the law says. Our offices look at all of that and decide whether we file charges or if that case comes into the system. Eventually, there’s a trial and if someone is found guilty, there’s a sentence and then they serve their time.
We aren’t involved if no one is ever arrested. So even as carjackings are discussed in the media, a good majority of the people who were committing carjackings were not arrested. My office can’t do anything if there are no arrests. In the carjacking cases that were charged, we were approving or filing felony charges in almost 90% of those cases. In the other 10% of those cases, there isn’t enough evidence to file charges. We were filing them and now those cases are working their way through the courts and will ultimately go to trial.
People assume that just because a crime has happened and there’s been an arrest, there are automatic charges filed and that’s not necessarily so. There are many cases that keep us up at night, particularly around shootings and carjackings. The clearance rate by the police in the city of Chicago is low.
Chicago Defender: So, what do you say to critics who say your office has a revolving door of criminals?
SA Kim Foxx: The Chicago police say a lot of things, but they have never refuted our data. They have never said our data is incorrect. So, when we say that we have an approval rate of 90% on carjackings, or 94%, on guns, they don’t say that that’s not true. What happens is they conflate other things, such as bail. They arrest them, we charge them, but they say we let them out on bail. They are in the system because we charged them. The bail piece is a decision made by a judge. We don’t set bail, judges do, and they are guided by the constitution, which says you have to set a reasonable bail.
Chicago Defender: There’s your office, the police department, and everyone working towards reducing crime, getting guns off the street, and protecting the community but if the agencies are not seeing eye to eye, how does anything get accomplished with so much discourse?
SA Kim Foxx: I don’t think there’s as much discourse among the agencies. I think the men and women who are dedicated to doing this work, want to solve these crimes and the people in this office who care about this work. I think if there’s a strong working relationship, we have to hold you accountable. We can be professional, respectful and we can work together and when it’s time to, hold you. accountable for misdeeds, we can do that.
I think that we are here in service to the people. We serve the people of Cook County in what our goal of keeping them safe. We do have a persistent issue of violent crime that I’m very invested in. I have to work with the police. We are not independent. We are part of a larger ecosystem. All these pieces in this powerful ecosystem work together. I need Superintendent Brown to be successful. That’s why I don’t do public fights. I don’t engage in that.
ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND EQUITY
Chicago Defender: When you were first elected, one of the first things you did was expunge many of the cannabis convictions? What was your reasoning behind that?
SA Kim Foxx: I worked with the black caucus in Springfield and the governor’s office on the cannabis legalization bill. Part of that was language allowed for automatic expungement of cannabis records. We did that because we saw a disproportionate number of black people convicted of marijuana-related offenses. These convictions prevent people from being able to rent an apartment or get a job. When addressing violence in our communities, these cycles of violence are rooted in the inability to get work and the inability to provide for one’s family. We often see a survivalist mentality. So, if we’re able to remove some of the barriers and allow people to do the things that we know prevent crime such as getting a job, obtaining housing, and education, they do better. When they do better, we do better.
Chicago Defender: You have been very vocal and proactive on criminal justice reform, particularly on a holistic level. What are the challenges you have faced from those who oppose that change?
SA Kim Foxx: Criminal justice, law, crime, and violence is complicated. These are not simple issues. We spend more of our resources going after drug addicts, retail theft, shoplifting than we do on violent crime. When we talk about violence in our neighborhoods and the economic drivers that are the root causes, we also need to talk about trauma. The impetus to pick up the gun is driven by trauma as well and as we talk about the gun culture in this city, which is, is comparative to other places, out of control, that gun culture is fueled by a lot of people in hurt communities.
I think that’s the hardest part about doing this work. When I say we need to have a holistic approach, people say, “oh, you’re just being touchy”, but if people are healed, they don’t hurt.
“If we are serious about chronic prevention, we must invest in Trauma Recovery Services, we must invest in education, and we must invest in healthcare. These are all these things that we know but criminal justice stakeholders don’t ever talk about that”?
I think a lot of the rhetoric that we hear comes from people who are not of our community. The people who are watching from afar want the status quo.
ON THE CRITICISMS
Chicago Defender: You ran on a platform for criminal justice reform. I’m sure you knew you would face opposition, especially as a black woman, but did you expect it to be as vitriolic and hateful?
SA Kim Foxx: I’m black, I’m a woman and I’m unapologetic about where I come from. I talk about growing up in Cabrini Green in every interview I do because it’s not that I’m just a lawyer or a black woman doing it. I’m a black woman from the projects. I am from project people. These are the same people that my critics would write off because they are in the system. It offends some when I say that I have more in common with the people who come into the system than the lawyers who work here.
Chicago Defender: What do you mean by that statement?
SA Kim Foxx: I think for some people, my identification, not just being black and woman, but my identification with the very people who are oppressed within this system. I had a reporter say to me, after last year’s unrest, “you don’t seem angry”. Angry by who’s standards? What I understood was that there were people out in the streets with pain and rage from generations pouring out of them and that was anger and hurt you could never understand and yet you said, I wasn’t angry enough for you? I’m so fluent in racism: subtle racism, liberal racism, overt and outspoken racism. I learned very early so I’m very astute and I don’t code switch.
ON THE NEED FOR REFORM AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Chicago Defender: How do you balance fighting injustice and systemic racism, with also making sure that people who have committed crimes are punished for those crimes, particularly in black and brown communities?
SA Kim Foxx: Our foremost goal is public safety. I believe that you must be accountable for your actions. We can talk about all the things that drive violence but I’m going to hold you accountable. You cannot cause harm because you’re hurt. That harm has a lasting impact on individuals in our communities. However, I also want our response to you to stop you from doing that again. You must be held responsible for your actions. That’s how we were raised. It is part of the social contract we have that you can’t go around hurting folks and then nothing happens to you. So public safety and accountability are number one. The second piece of that deals with the justice side. People don’t realize that when people go to prison most don’t go for the rest of their lives. People in prison for life account for 10% of the population, so if 90% of these people are coming out, of the most inhumane circumstances and we don’t help them, they go right back into the neighborhoods they just left.
Chicago Defender: And the cycle begins again.
SA Kim Foxx: That’s not in the interest of public safety. I think that’s the balance. We absolutely must hold people accountable, but we must do it in a way that achieves the goal, which is not having a repeat offender. We must be just as invested in your success coming out. That’s the way that the system should work. It is not choosing victims over defendants.
“You cannot have real public safety if you do not reform the system”.
Danielle Sanders is a writer and journalist living in Chicago. Find her on Twitter @DanieSanders20.