The number of defendants sentenced to prison or jail has dropped by one-fifth during State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s second year in office, according to a report released today by three organizations supporting local criminal justice reform.
The report, based on public data available on the Cook County State’s Attorney’s webpage, shows that the number of defendants sentenced to be incarcerated dropped from 12,262 in 2017 to fewer than 10,000 last year.
Members of those groups, as well as several individuals impacted by Kim Foxx’s policies, gathered at a press conference Tuesday in front of Foxx’s office to release the report. Several speakers at the event linked the drop in incarceration with the drop in crime, though the report stops short of establishing a definite correlation.
“Jails do not make us safer, and the data shows that,” said Jerry Davis-El, a social worker and criminal justice reform advocate who was incarcerated under Foxx’s predecessor, Anita Alvarez.
“People think that incarceration makes our communities safer, and we know that it doesn’t; we know it actually makes people less safe,” said Kristi Sanford, director of communications at The People’s Lobby.
The report comes as Foxx has been under fire, especially from rank-and-file police groups, for what they consider an overly forgiving approach to crime. The criticisms drew sharper after the state’s attorney dropped charges against the actor Jussie Smollett, whom police concluded had hired two actors to fake a racial crime against him. A Cook County judge ordered a special prosecutor to review the prosecutors’ handling of that case.
Foxx is due to face re-election for office in 2020, a vote that could be complicated by the special prosecutor’s review.
Officials at the local Fraternal Order of Police office failed to return calls from Injustice Watch on the new report.
The community groups’ report cites Foxx’s handling of retail theft cases; her increased use of alternative sentencing programs; and her vesting authorities in more discretion to deviate from hard-line positions as the three factors that have led to the drop in defendants being incarcerated.
First, Foxx has implemented a policy of not charging people with felonies in retail theft cases — viewed as a nonviolent crime connected to poverty — valued at less than $1,000. Former prosecutor Alvarez set this threshold at $300.
The report notes that the number of cases charged with felony retail theft decreased by almost 74 percent from the last two years of the Alvarez administration to the first two years of the Foxx administration, which Sanford called “the leading factor” in the decrease in prison and jail sentences under Foxx.
Legislators are now considering a bill that would push the threshold for felony retail theft charges up to $2,000 statewide.
Foxx has also recommended 25 percent more cases for diversion than did Alvarez, according to the report. The programs provide treatment for issues such as mental health and substance use disorder, as well as additional support for first-time offenders.
“If we are willing to spend money on incarceration, it says to us that we are a city that does not want to see all of our citizens develop,” the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Chris said in an interview following the press conference. “But if we are willing to spend on education, on mental health, on social services, on housing, on removing the stigma — the scarlet letter of incarceration — we will be a city that we should be, not the city that we have been in the past.”
The report also credits Foxx for improving training of prosecutors to enable them to seek alternative prosecutions and to make more reasonable plea deals.
Sanford acknowledged that there is no hard data to demonstrate Foxx’s strides in this area, but she noted that anecdotal evidence has shown that prosecutors under Foxx do have more discretion about what kinds of charges to bring against defendants.
Speaker Lawrence Marshall, who serves on the board of The People’s Lobby, said that Foxx’s willingness to provide public data illustrates the administration’s commitment towards transparency.
“People won’t fight for something they don’t believe in,” he said in an interview following the press conference. “[Foxx’s] ability to be transparent and candid and true — when people see that, they can take pride in knowing that Kim Foxx is a person that represents their community [and] represents their best interests, which we hope will spark their interest to come and get involved.”
Immanuel Campbell, one of the speakers, was tackled and beaten by police at a protest, and then arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Under the Alvarez administration, Campbell said he was “pressured to take a plea deal and not fight for the truth.”
Foxx’s office dropped the charges against Campbell in 2017. Campbell went on to win a civil suit against the city, resulting in a decree requiring the Chicago Police Department to implement procedures focused on de-escalation.
“I stand here as a voice for those who do not have this platform and for those who have lost their lives to police brutality,” said Campbell. “I was out in the streets of Chicago fighting for justice and against police brutality in a peaceful protest, and I stand here today doing my best to shed light on the problems this city has.”
Like Campbell, Davis-El highlighted the lack of mental health, housing and employment resources made available upon release from prison.
Without access to proper mental health care, Davis-El had difficulty processing the deaths of his daughter and mother — both of which occurred while he was incarcerated — and ended up back in prison shortly after being released in 2010. However, he used his experiences to develop a career in social work, co-founding a re-entry center, Healing Hands Resource Center.
“We believe in tearing down this system and building a Chicago where every child is able to develop, where every child is able to grow,” Moss told the crowd. “I believe that we are going to break the new Jim Crow and the incarceration state that functions in Chicago.”