When Democrat Kim Foxx took over as Cook County state’s attorney in 2017, she had clear focus and strong voter support. She would battle violent crime and convict perpetrators, yes, but she also would work to reform a criminal justice system that too often acted unjustly.
In Cook County, too many people suspected of low-level crimes spent time in lockup because they couldn’t afford to bond out. Too many innocent people were wrongly convicted of serious crimes, leading to a series of prosecutorial reforms and eventually the end of the death penalty in Illinois. Especially in minority communities traumatized by gang shootings, far too many residents distrusted law enforcement.
Foxx’s noble reform efforts, pursued in concert with Chief Judge Timothy Evans and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, would never come easily because the stakes are so high. Any bold steps to make changes to the prosecution of crime, any perceived easing off the gas pedal, could jeopardize public safety, or raise concerns at least.
Unfortunately, Foxx’s performance as state’s attorney has created extraordinary doubts in our minds about her ability to strike that balance. In a year of skyrocketing homicides in Chicago and amid a health pandemic that led to special jail-release efforts, easing off the gas pedal was not the right approach. The events of 2020 that included national unrest following the police killing of George Floyd required recalibrating her protocols, including her practice of allowing electronic monitoring for defendants accused of violent crimes. Judges sign off on those, yes, but as recommendations and approvals from the prosecutors first.
It’s not just us. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her police superintendent, David Brown, assistant state’s attorneys who serve under Foxx, and even Evans at times have questioned whether the pendulum swung too far. Evans told us he heard concerns from his own judges about defendants in bond court who weren’t being detained.
In addition, the mistakes Foxx made in the case against actor Jussie Smollett raise critical questions about trustworthiness. The sudden and unexplained drop of 16 charges that had been approved by a grand jury, and the surprise factor at an unannounced court hearing, leave too many questions about Foxx’s judgment. She cut a special deal for someone with clout. The outside prosecutor who reviewed that case, Dan Webb, found no evidence of criminal acts by Foxx’s office but said she abused her discretion and breached her obligations of honesty.
One former judge and prosecutor summed up the cost to Foxx this way: “The state’s attorney is going to make hundreds of decisions in a month, let alone a term. If the public can’t believe that the decisions, some of which they might disagree with, are based upon the law and the facts, then we’re in a bad situation. You cannot have the integrity of a state’s attorney as the chief criminal law officer of the county questioned. Because once it’s questioned, integrity is not a jacket you can put back on you. Take that off and it’s off forever.”
That former judge and prosecutor is Foxx’s challenger, Republican Pat O’Brien. He’s right about the integrity jacket, but he’s not waging his campaign solely to criticize Foxx, nor is he claiming he is the law-and-order answer to her troubled tenure as a reformer. “Criminal justice reform can never be a bad thing,” O’Brien told us, saying he would continue to pursue changes to make the system fairer.
He believes in offering deferred prosecutions for people who are accused of low-level offenses to get them off the path to prison. He doesn’t want to see people languish in jail because they can’t afford bond. He also wants successful prosecutions reexamined if questions arise about wrongful convictions.
He is an example of that. O’Brien prosecuted the 1986 murder of Lori Roscetti and won convictions of four young men who would be proven innocent more than a decade later due to improvements in forensic science. You can read more about that case here: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2004-12-17-0412170232-story.html.
Foxx points to other cases she believes O’Brien mishandled during his tenure as a prosecutor; he says his supervisory role at the time could not account for every decision made by the 600 or 700 assistant state’s attorneys in the office.
O’Brien has seen Cook County’s criminal justice system as a state’s attorney, a lead prosecutor, a defense attorney and a Circuit Court judge. You’d be hard pressed to find a more experienced and well-regarded jurist for the job.
The work Foxx has done to reverse wrongs in the Cook County system is laudable. But some mistakes are too serious to warrant a second term. In the race for state’s attorney, in which Libertarian Brian Dennehy is also running, the Tribune endorses Pat O’Brien.
Editorials reflect the opinion of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.