Kim Foxx Is Under Attack Because She’s Trying to Transform Chicago’s Criminal Justice System

Chicago’s criminal justice system has long been brutal and racist. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has tried to change that in the last four years — which is precisely why she’s under attack right now.

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx arrives to speak with reporters at the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse on February 23, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images)

I teach in Chicago Public Schools and see the impacts of over-policing in the city every day. Students are regularly stopped by police for the high crime of hanging out in public. I’ve heard countless stories of verbal and physical altercations with police officers from my students. This traumatizes young people, and they carry that trauma into our classrooms. The police and criminal justice system cause problems that teachers must try to fix, and in Chicago, that means doing more with less as our mayor prioritizes expanding budgets for police over schools.

I was never one to support candidates for prosecutor. Central to my vision for a better world is reducing and eventually eliminating the positions and institutions of prosecutors, police, and prisons that have gained so much power and ruined so many lives in our society. I didn’t see much potential in running “progressive” prosecutors, which seemed like a contradiction in terms.

This changed when I learned of Kim Foxx’s campaign for Cook County state’s attorney against incumbent Anita Alvarez in Chicago in 2016. Alvarez helped then-mayor Rahm Emanuel hide the police dashcam footage of seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald being murdered by officer Jason Van Dyke in a hail of sixteen bullets in 2014. When that footage was finally released in 2016, a coalition of community organizers, many who do not normally involve themselves in electoral politics, organized the #ByeAnita campaign in 2016, working parallel to the official campaign for Kim Foxx.

Foxx ran on restorative justice and keeping the state’s attorney’s office accountable on criminal justice abuses. As she told Micah Uetricht in a 2016 profile during the race:

You cannot look at the criminal justice system in a vacuum. We need a broader and more holistic view of how we prevent crime and how we keep communities safer. . . . The public has to hold feet to the fire on these issues. And Anita Alvarez’s feet have not been held to the fire.

Alvarez lost handily to Foxx in March 2016. Foxx hit the ground running. Shortly after the legalization of cannabis in Illinois, Foxx expunged the records of one thousand people with marijuana convictions. As Alexandra Arriaga wrote last year, she “turned away more than 5,000 cases that would have been pursued by the previous state’s attorney, mostly by declining to prosecute low-level shoplifting and drug offenses and by increasing diversion to alternative treatment programs.”

At the same time Foxx’s office has prosecuted fewer people, violent crime has dropped. A July 2019 report by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, Reclaim Chicago, and the People’s Lobby showed that “the number of people sentenced to incarcerations declined 19 percent last year  —  dropping from 12,262 in 2017 to 9,941 in 2018  —  while FBI statistics showed reports of violent crimes in Chicago dropped by 8 percent.”

There’s no better indicator of Foxx’s reforms successfully reducing the power of police and prisons in Cook County than the enemies she has made in office. Suburban police chiefs joined the president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) — the police union that has long worked to stymie criminal justice reform efforts around the country and defend police brutality and misconduct — in calling on Foxx to resign for her work to exonerate people who have been falsely prosecuted for their crimes.

But the biggest attack against Foxx thus far has come from Foxx’s handing of the Jussie Smollett case. Smollett, star of the TV series Empire, allegedly staged a racist and homophobic attack on himself in 2019. The actor alleged that Trump supporters in ski masks physically attacked him in Chicago near his home, yelling pro-Trump slogans and brandishing a noose. An investigation revealed this to be false, and he was initially charged with filing a false police report before the state’s attorney’s office dropped charges. Later that year, sensing an opportunity to pounce on an official, the FOP issued a vote of no confidence in the prosecutor for Foxx’s handling of the case.

It was a bizarre case, to be sure. Foxx probably could have handled it better, which she admits. But I can’t think of a good reason to be mad about it — and certainly not to view it as a deciding factor when considering who to put in charge of Chicago’s criminal justice system.

Chicago is a city that has sent countless innocent people of color to prison on trumped-up charges based on forced confessions and police misconduct. Cops even engaged in actual torture of black men for nearly two decades. Unlike the Smollett case, such abuses have real victims and have ruined lives — a fact that Foxx clearly understands and is attempting to undo.

Foxx’s opponents don’t believe this. Instead, they’re siding with the FOP, wielding the Smollett case as a cudgel against Foxx. Her rogues’ gallery of challengers for the March 17 primary includes Bill Conway, ultrarich scion to private equity firm and Iraq War profiteers, The Carlyle Group; casino lawyer Donna More, whose message isn’t clear beyond her desire to defeat Foxx; and former city council member Bob Fioretti. All three are pushing the FOP’s message that Foxx screwed up the case — and that somehow this is the most important issue facing the city’s criminal justice system, not police murder and torture, over-policing, and mass incarceration.

The Smollett case is a distraction being hyped by opponents of a more just and humane criminal justice system in Chicago and Cook County. That system is in desperate need of transformation, and Foxx is putting the city on the right path to do just that.