By Madeline Makoul
Three candidates are running for Cook County’s state’s attorney in a race that has become more contentious in the lead-up to election day.
Kim Foxx, the incumbent and Democratic candidate, said growing up in Cabrini-Green public housing gave her firsthand insight into the violence communities experience—something she hopes to continue to address in office.
Gazette Chicago asked Foxx about criticism she has received about her office dropping charges against Jussie Smollett, who fraudulently claimed he had been a victim of a hate crime.
“Diversions for low-level cases happen every day,” Foxx explained. “Indeed, we should have better informed the general public of this process. As you know, the special prosecutor critically reviewed this case and ultimately found no outside influence, no criminal activity, and that I had no role in the final decision.”
Foxx has drawn criticism concerning other dropped felony cases. Foxx said she has opened felony case load data to the public to enhance transparency about what felony cases come in, which her office drops, and which her office completes. Foxx previously said the office spent significant time on drug possession cases, with less attention to violence, shootings, and homicides.
“Drug addiction and substance abuse is a public health issue, but 40% of the cases that come into our office are drug cases,” she said, noting she would rather focus on drug pushers and violence. Instead of using so many resources on cases of drug possession, Foxx said, she wants to divert those cases to treatment options, so her office can spend more time on “those who are causing harm” through violence.
She added prosecutors may drop some felony cases because they lack sufficient evidence, and she will not pursue a case with “evidence that is not sustainable” to ensure the right people are convicted, noting that her Republican opponent, Pat O’Brien, “oversaw 27 wrongful convictions” in his career.
Foxx asserted the state’s attorney’s office has prosecuted more gun cases in her first three years than the last administration did in its final three. Foxx wants to continue allocating resources to ensure her office tries and convicts offenders in gun cases. With the Gun Crimes Strategies Unit, Foxx has assistant state’s attorneys working with police to help build stronger gun cases, a protocol she hopes to continue in a second term.
About looting over this past summer, Foxx explained police make the arrests and present her office with the cases they believe have enough evidence to make a felony charge stick. The police can file cases they deem misdemeanors on their own, without the state’s attorney. While opponents have asserted Foxx was not tough on looting, she said her office approved 90% of the felony looting cases that police presented. In the second round of looting in August, of the 42 felony charges Chicago Police presented, her office approved 40 cases.
Foxx’s office differentiates retail theft from looting, and she said she has been charging fewer cases of retail theft. As she explained, other states set higher dollar amounts for retail crime to count as a felony, with states such as Wisconsin charging retail theft as a felony once it reaches $2,000 versus Illinois at $300—a lower threshold that can increase caseload and take attention away from violent crime.
While retail theft clearly differs from looting, Foxx said some are “conflating” looters with “non-violent peaceful protesters, people arrested for curfew violations, or those loitering in the streets. Those were cases we are not going to use our limited resources to go after. But we are going after looters.” Foxx said her office continues to work with police to build cases, looking at videos and social media to ensure police arrest looters.
Foxx feels her relationship with the police constitutes an important partnership. “The notion that we are at war with the police is absolutely false,” she said. “I need our police on every case we have, and I have to be able to support them. At the same time, if they do something wrong and I have to prosecute a police officer, I will do that like I would anyone else. But we have a strong working relationship, and that’s how we are able to approve cases and win—because our police show up and do the job they are asked to do.”
“In 2017, 2018, and 2019, violent crime has gone down in Cook County,” Foxx said. “The ‘lock ‘em all up’ policies of the past did not help the police and certainly did not help public safety. My office has increased the total prosecuted cases related to serious and violent crime by 7% from the previous administration. Not only are more individuals with violent crimes arrests being charged, but the overall conviction rate has also risen from 81% to 83% since 2016.”
When asked about criticism of electronic monitoring of offenders, Foxx said, “Let’s be clear, this monitoring system is handled by the sheriff’s office, and my Republican opponent, Mr. O’Brien, should know this given his experience in the office. Mr. O’Brien is simply playing politics and is using Trump-like fear tactics to exploit recent tragedies to connect them to electronic monitoring.”
To learn more, visit www.kimfoxx.com/
Patrick “Pat” O’Brien,the Republican candidate, has practiced law for 45 years, serving as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney from 1975 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1993. O’Brien also worked as a Cook County Circuit Court judge, elected as a Democrat, from 2006 to 2015 and has been in private practice since then. He switched to the Republican Party in 2019 in planning his run for state’s attorney.
O’Brien felt motivated to run after seeing how incumbent Foxx handled the Smollett case. O’Brien believes Smollett was “given a sweetheart deal because he was politically connected, and the state’s attorney violated her oath of office and integrity.”
O’Brien wants to change how officials oversee individual recognizance bonds and hopes to improve the electronic monitoring system. He said the sheriff’s office does not have resources to oversee the current number of people under electronic monitoring in Cook County, and because it lacks GPS, some violations go unreported upon first incident.
“I would make sure there’s a unit that monitors the monitors so the first violation they get pulled in, because when you have a violation with electronic monitoring, that’s actually considered an escape,” he said.
O’Brien also would work to ensure the bond court recommends appropriate bonds for each crime, not lowering the bond price if the person cannot pay it in the case of more serious crimes.
O’Brien asserted he would prosecute felony narcotics cases vigorously and not drop them, saying, “In gangs, narcotics fuel their ability to get money and stay flush. You can’t separate drugs from gangs, so I would prosecute drug offenses and look to make cases against gang leaders.”
He charged that the state’s attorney’s office “isn’t working hard enough” on violence, adding, “I don’t necessarily blame the assistants. It’s direction; it’s leadership. They have a state’s attorney that thinks they are a social justice warrior.”
O’Brien said he wants more funding for a witness and children security program to keep witnesses safe, even after they testify and cases are closed, to ensure witnesses feel comfortable and safe testifying with no protection when they return to the communities in which the people who they testified against live. O’Brien suggested using Federal grants to fund relocating witnesses to provide a “safety veil” so people aren’t afraid to testify.
Regarding his prosecuting 27 cases later deemed wrongful convictions, O’Brien said many stemmed from a lack of sufficient DNA processing—an issue he would focus on in office. O’Brien said testing DNA, and quickly, would be key to ensuring prosecutors try and convict the right people of crimes.
Concerning minor drug convictions, O’Brien said he would ensure the state’s attorney’s office expunges them quickly. He supports group expungements versus handling one defendant at time, expunging those with charges for fewer than 30 grams of drugs. While he would do his best to contact those affected by expunged charges so they know drug convictions are off their records, he would write expunging orders aggressively for groups of charges even if the office could not reach individuals, wiping small drug charges from their records at an efficient rate.
Concerning looting, O’Brien asserted Foxx has extended more sympathy to the defendant than the victim. While prosecutors can treat retail theft as a felony at the $300 level, he charged Foxx failed to prosecute unless the value was $1,000 or more which, he believes has allowed looting to continue.
“Why are the people who obey the law paying the price for the people that break the law?” O’Brien asked. “That doesn’t make us safer. You have to act as a prosecutor, working all the time to make communities safer and make the victim’s voice heard.”
If looting continues, O’Brien said he would make it clear the office would prosecute looters and would want assistant state’s attorneys with the police to photograph and take inventory of stolen items to ensure they have proof beyond reasonable doubt when dealing with looters.
Brian Dennehy,the Libertarian Party candidate, works as a tax lawyer and accountant. A former marine, Dennehy was motivated to run for the position because he believes “the country is heading in the wrong direction, and I wanted to do something about it.”
About dropping felony cases, Dennehy said, “My basic operating premise is don’t hurt people, don’t take people’s stuff, and if you’re not hurting people and not taking people’s stuff, it’s difficult to charge that person with a felony.”
Dennehy said he understands why the state’s attorney’s office drops many felony cases if they were lesser felony charges that hurt no one and said he too likely would drop felony cases involving drug charges, possessing or distributing small amounts of illegal drugs, and possessing a firearm without an owner’s identification card.
Dennehy called the looting “unprecedented” and believes Foxx did the best she could, considering the situation. Dennehy said, if looting continues, he would prosecute those with prior convictions for theft or violence as well as those who had a more professional thieving operation and stole volumes of expensive items.
“The state’s attorney’s office has to dissuade people from acts of looting by charging them with the appropriate offense and hope the word gets out that, if you’re caught looting, you’re going down,” Dennehy explained, stating that for “those cases where people were backing up U-Hauls or breaking into people’s property, we charge them with burglary and the highest offense and keep them in jail.” For those who may have gotten “caught up in the moment,” Dennehy said he would seek restitution for the people and businesses harmed, making a better difference for looting victims than “locking someone in a cage.”
Dennehy would focus on violence associated with drugs, noting “the black market prohibition is the driver of a lot of this violence. If your product is illegal, you can’t call the cops or use the courts, so gangsters rely on street justice to solve their problems because they can’t rely on the police.”
As a remedy, Dennehy said he would call to decriminalize drugs. Instead of a blanket policy that decriminalizes all charges, Dennehy explained, “I wouldn’t prosecute any drug cases when it’s a voluntary transaction by consenting adults. With kids, charge the drug seller. If someone is selling drugs cut with fentanyl, I would consider that a form of violence and would charge that person.”
Dennehy said that, aside from decriminalizing drugs, Illinois needs more reform to provide alternatives for people to earn money so the drug trade is not their only option.
While Dennehy supports many of Foxx’s reform efforts, he said her “adversarial relationship” with the Federation of Police is unhealthy for the system. “The FOP isn’t the enemy of the people,” Dennehy said, “They are part of the system too. I don’t think she will be able to repair that relationship. I don’t have any baggage with the FOP, police, or mayor’s office, and I understand that everyone needs to work together.”
Looking to forge new relationships, Dennehy said, “I’m coming into it with the mindset that we need to do collectively what’s in the best interests of the people—including the police, Black Lives Matter, and the families of people who suffered from police brutality. I have a mindset of ‘how do we fix this?’ without being beholden to anyone or having baggage of some old case or accusation.”
To learn more about Dennehy, visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Brian-Dennehy-for-Cook-County-States-Attorney-100302215125511/.