Kimberly “Kim” Foxx is the current Cook County State’s Attorney, elected in 2016. She represents the second largest prosecutorial office in the United States, is the first African American woman to do so, and serves as the district attorney for the largest centralized court system in the country. In years prior she has served as Chief of Staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and as an Assistant State’s Attorney. She campaigned on her commitment to uprooting crime at the root, fostering transparency, and reversing a harmful legacy of overly punitive law-enforcement in Cook County. She sat down with the Gate to discuss her vision to combat crime, her relationship with the CPD, issues of gang violence, and the school to prison pipeline.
The Gate: Your life experiences have granted you a greater degree of empathy towards those caught in cycles of criminality. How does this inform your leadership over the assistant state’s attorneys who work under you, some of whom may be less inclined to empathize with defendants the way that you do?
Kim Foxx: I don’t know that people are less inclined to empathize. The perspective that I bring is unique in that I have grown up in circumstances much like those of the people that come through the criminal justice system, both victims and defendants. I think what you find, particularly in the legal profession, is that we don’t have very much diversity, and then even when we have diversity it’s not diversity of experience. Having grown up in public housing, having come from a challenging background that mirrors a lot of the people that I see in the justice system, it’s not even just in empathy—there’s an understanding.
I think that my experiences have allowed for me to be a kind of personification of what’s possible. If you believe that these neighborhoods that are impacted by crime and violence don’t produce great things, your inclination to fight hard for everyone in it might be different. But if I can say to you, “Look, I came here from Cabrini [Green, a public housing project], the child of a single mother, and who would have ever thought that I would be the first African American woman to ever sit here,” you might have fought harder for me.
So I try to bring those experiences to bear, for people who I think are well intentioned, but perhaps don’t have the same perspective.
Gate: As the summer months approach, many Chicagoans are concerned and worried that the warm weather will bring spikes in shootings, assaults, and homicides. What plan should they expect from your office to tackle crime and help make the streets safer?
KF: We have put our attorneys outside of courtrooms and into some of our most high violence police districts. In our Gun Crime Strategies Unit, our Assistant State’s Attorney, our CPD, the FBI, the ATF [Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; a gun crime focused agency], and the DEA. Our people work on the ground in conjunction with our community justice centers to get to know the people in the areas, asking: Where are the hot spots? Who are the drivers of violence?
And so for us that has meant being more proactive and working with partners. What we also hope to do, as the summer months come, is be more strategic with the city. Mayor Lightfoot has said that she wants more coordination between CPD, this new office for Violence Prevention, and the US Attorney’s office, so again strategizing where we’re going to put our resources.
I think we have to stop being last responders. We respond after the chalk outline is drawn. We have to be more on the proactive, violence prevention side.
Gate: Your office has recently announced that it will be committing to expunging thousands of minor cannabis convictions, in partnership with the criminal justice non-profit Code for America. What are the challenges you foresee in the process, and what benefits will it have?
KF: The challenges are that we’ve never done it before. We don’t know what we don’t know from an infrastructure logistics standpoint. The county is the second largest county in the country, and we have the largest unified court system in the country. We’re estimating that it will be several thousand, we look at a place like San Francisco that expunged nine thousand, in a place like Brooklyn it had twenty thousand, so the question for us is, “What does Chicago look like?”
So those are the biggest challenges. We’re very fortunate to have Code for America who will be coming in to help us. They have worked in San Francisco, they are now in Los Angeles, so they’ve done this and are able to tell us what the hiccups might be and how to navigate.
The benefits are many. I think we talk a lot about the collateral consequences of convictions—the ability for someone to get a job, to get housing, to get student aid assistance. When we talk about cycles of poverty and violence, what we find is that those communities that have a high incidence of violence also have high concentrations of folks that have criminal convictions.
As we see marijuana legalization on the horizon in Illinois, for those people who maybe had been “entrepreneurs” before their entrepreneurial spirit was recognized, to be left out while others profit to the tune of billions, is not equitable, is not just. And so I think that this is a step towards fairness and equity, particularly in impacted communities of color.
Gate: You’ve mentioned engaging strategically with the CPD—your office must collaborate with them to share gun crime data and develop stronger cases to reduce crime. How do you navigate the CPD relationship?
KF: I meet with the superintendent once a month because I think that it’s important to have communications there. Our top line executive teams meet with each other also, on their own. One of the things I realized when I first got here is that we weren’t really sharing information. CPD would share their compstat [computer statistics] information with the world—monthly, they’ll tell you what crime looks like here or there. What we had was another piece of the puzzle.
And in looking at our data, what we saw was that there were some real gaps on cases that had gone to trial, particularly on gun cases, where we weren’t seeing the convictions that we thought we’d be seeing. We communicated this with the CPD, and said that it was important to discuss how we can work together to build cases to reduce the gaps in outcomes that we were seeing. We share our gun statistics with them monthly. We also work together on our felony review guidebook, which is a book that we’ve put together at the State’s Attorney’s office to give to our law enforcement partners on how to build and present strong cases.
Gate: The CPD currently relies upon a “gang database” (a system of records tracking alleged gang members in the Chicago area), that has been accused by critics of being inaccurate and outdated. For example, over 15,000 individuals out of 134,000 have been listed as gang members in the database without a specific reason as to why. What is your stance on the usage and reform of the database?
KF: Look, I think it’s become abundantly clear that the database in its current iteration is overly broad. I think it has issues of bias and reliability. I believe the City of Chicago Inspector General just a couple weeks ago released a report that enumerated a number of the things that you just said. I also think that we have to be incredibly careful. How does one association get them on the list? What does it mean? There are some neighborhoods where young people self-identify for their own safety. Does that necessarily translate into criminality? I think I share the belief that while we want to make sure that we’re able to identify who the people that are driving violence are, I do not share the belief that the current gang database allows us to do that. If you have fifteen thousand people who should not be there, and you’re chasing them, then the people who are driving violence, you don’t have the bandwidth to deal with.
Gate: Why do you think gang membership is so prevalent in the city? Do you think that the nature of gangs in Chicago has changed in recent years, and what can be done about it?
KF: I think that how we define gangs now is so different from how we defined gangs when I was growing up. I think the historical structures of gangs of old aren’t the same as they are now. I mean you’ve got cliques, crews, posses, boys. How we define “gang” is problematic. I think part of the database issue is that social networks for a lot of people become really important, particularly for young people.
I have teenagers who live in my home, I have girls, I watch their cliques. How do you distinguish between a clique and a gang? Are you involved in criminal activity? In the old days we were linking it with drug sales and turf wars. What you’re finding with the young people who are getting into conflict now, these are Facebook beefs. These are about disrespect, these aren’t conflicts over turf, and I think we have to stop talking about it like that.
These aren’t the gangs of yore, where they had a hierarchy and a structure, where they were working like a corporation. There are still large segments of folks who are driving drug sales and driving violence because of the relationship with drugs, but there’s this huge population of young people who are in those social networks, who don’t have access to opportunity, who don’t have access to jobs, and quality education, and who get into conflicts, then we label that as “gang conflict,” and not behaviors of young people who are living in neighborhoods where that’s their social network.
Gate: How do you intend on collaborating with Chicago’s new Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to address the specific challenge of the school to prison pipeline?
KF: Lori served on my transition committee, so this is one of the things we talked about as I was coming in to office. We’ve said that we want to be more collaborative with CPS. We have been thus far, though there’s certainly more to do. So if we’re getting referrals from schools saying, “Look, we don’t know what to do with this kid, he had marijuana on him,” or, “These two kids got into a fight,” the default should be in-house, whatever you can do in the school. These are discipline issues. Yes they’re in the criminal code, but at their base they’re discipline issues.
Fortunately, we’ve seen a reduction in the number of school based referrals to our office. In fact, 2017 saw the lowest number of school based referrals to our office in almost ten years. We certainly want to drive it further. That has meant for us asking, “Can we collaborate with you on grant funding applications, so that you can get some restorative justice services in your schools?” We find that well resourced schools tend not to call the police on their kids as much. Under resourced schools, where it’s like “I don’t have time to deal with this person over here, I just need this person gone,” will utilize the criminal justice system more.
Gate: Despite recent efforts to affirm the city of Chicago as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, the fear of deportation is still a barrier to the investigation and prosecution of crimes against Cook County’s undocumented population. What reforms and changes has your office implemented to combat this issue? Has the federal government been an obstacle?
KF: Absolutely, the federal government has been an obstacle. I came into office a month before President Trump was sworn in, and in that first week there were ICE agents that were showing up at court houses across the country, which has a very chilling effect.
It is actually dangerous to have these types of policies in place. We have people who are victims of domestic violence who are living in fear, who are living in danger, because they are afraid that, in as much as they don’t want to be harmed, their families may be broken up, they may be deported. We have people in neighborhoods who may be witnesses to violent crime who want their communities to be safe, but don’t trust coming to law enforcement.
As much as we talk about ICE or the police department, as the prosecutor I’m a law enforcement agency, as so there’s no demarcation where they say, “Oh, it’s safe here.” It has a real chilling effect. We do see an underreporting of domestic violence cases, we do see low clearance rates in neighborhoods of high violence, where we have populations of people who are undocumented.
The federal government has been a huge barrier to that. We filed an amicus brief with the City of Chicago to reaffirm the city’s sanctuary city status and to also challenge the Attorney General’s mandate that city’s who provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants would not be able to receive federal assistance in the way of JAG [federal Justice Assistance Grant program] grants. We were successful with that.
And so, we believe that it is our duty as the prosecutor to make sure that everybody has the ability to live safe and healthy lives, whether you are a documented resident or not.
Gate: Cook County Bond Courts are currently relying on a Pretrial Risk Assessment tool that looks at a defendant’s background to make a recommendation about the conditions of their release, if at all. How has this system worked to improve public safety, and how can it be improved?
KF: I think it has worked in that we’ve started with a recognition, before you even get to the tool, that bond should be about two major issues: whether you’re a flight risk or whether you are a risk to public safety. We’re trying to give some guardrails as to what are we actually looking at—we’ve seen an overall reduction in the Cook County Jail population as a result of bond reform over the last couple of years.
I think some of the challenges are going to be the challenges that you find anytime you have a risk assessment tool and are looking at algorithms, [like] what are the hidden biases in them. For example, if one of the factors that you look at is numbers of arrests, depending on where you live and on life circumstances, you’ll find that African Americans on the South and West Sides may have a higher incidence of arrests. That doesn’t necessarily translate into higher risk, but policing strategies are different.
I think as we look at the tool, it’s ever evolving. I think we are in a far better place than we were in before, but we also cannot overly rely on algorithms. Somebody may show up as low-risk, who may actually in fact be a danger. The tool doesn’t absolve prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys for exercising their own judgement and discretion to advocate for what’s best in individual cases. But I think, the move to have an assessment tool, to provide some level of uniformity so that we don’t have the roll of the dice, has been helpful.Photo courtesy of the office of Kim Foxx.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.