Juvenile justice reform advocates said they are disappointed with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for headlining an election fundraiser for Cook County Judge Michael Toomin, who is running for another six-year term.
Toomin, the county’s presiding juvenile justice division judge, has been criticized for opposing reforms that advocates say would keep more youth out of the criminal justice system. He is one of two judges seeking retention who the Cook County Democratic Party has voted not to endorse. The progressive group Judicial Accountability PAC has also targeted the judge with its “Toss Toomin” campaign.
“The juvenile courts system needs someone at the head that is focused on reform and focused on restorative justice and rehabilitative justice, focused on the Black and brown kids that are coming through that system every day,” said former Cook County Public Defender Randolph Stone, the retired director of the Criminal & Juvenile Justice Project at the University of Chicago Law School. “I think it’s time for a change.”
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Lightfoot appeared Tuesday as a “special guest” at a virtual fundraiser for Toomin hosted by the Chicago Federation of Labor and other labor groups, according to a participant and a flyer for the event obtained by Injustice Watch. A City Hall spokesperson referred calls to Lightfoot’s political team, which did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
After the Cook County Democrats voted not to endorse Toomin, Lightfoot told members of the city hall press corps she was “deeply concerned” about the decision. “The optics of this are terrible,” she said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It looks like retaliation.”
Toomin and his supporters have said the Democrats’ vote was political retribution for his appointment of a special prosecutor to review Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s role in the Jussie Smollett case.
Criminal defense attorney Bill Murphy, who chairs Toomin’s fundraising committee and has been personal friends with the judge for a long time, called the Democratic Party vote “a political thing.” He said Toomin is widely considered a fair judge who decides cases based solely on the law.
“If they had a judges hall of fame, he would be on the first ballot,” Murphy said.
But members of the central party committee said the vote not to endorse Toomin was based on his track record overseeing the juvenile courts.
In an op-ed Tuesday in the Chicago Sun-Times, Cook County Board President and Democratic Committee Chairperson Toni Preckwinkle said that Toomin’s opposition to Redeploy Illinois, a statewide program that seeks to encourage alternatives to incarceration, has damaged juvenile justice reform in Cook County.
“For more than a decade, Judge Toomin has blocked adoption of the program from the juvenile court. His decision has cost Cook County up to $1 million annually — money that could have provided care to youth in need and improved public safety by offering necessary services to youth and their families,” Preckwinkle wrote.
Stone, who served with Lightfoot on the Police Accountability Task Force formed in the wake of the police killing of Laquan McDonald, said Lightfoot should have spoken with juvenile justice advocates and learned more from them about youth’s needs in the system before throwing her support behind Toomin.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I think the optics look bad, to use her term. The optics look bad because I would hope that she would be more concerned about the Black and brown children and families that are coming through the juvenile justice system.”
47th Ward Committeeman Paul Rosenfeld, another Judicial Accountability PAC board member, also expressed disappointment in Lightfoot’s support for Toomin.
“[Lightfoot] certainly can back whoever she wants, but I am surprised she thinks he’s the very best person to run Cook County’s Juvenile court system for the next six years,” Rosenfeld wrote in an email.
Toomin faced criticism in the spring for blocking a key legal protection for detained youth based on his interpretation of the court’s coronavirus emergency orders. Attorneys and juvenile justice advocates accused him of unjustly denying emergency release to incarcerated youth early in the coronavirus pandemic.
He has also come under fire for a 2018 decision to detain a 12-year-old in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, rejecting a county ordinance that banned the detention of youth under the age of 13. The Illinois Appellate Court upheld Toomin’s decision.
In an email, political consultant Hanah Jubeh, who runs the campaign for Toomin’s retention, said the judge had “instituted and spearheaded numerous programs to help kids and the youth.” She specifically cited a mentoring program, a parenting skills program, a schedule for weekend and holiday court, alternatives to incarceration for eligible preteens, and a prevention and treatment-focused collaboration with the University of Chicago Crime Lab.
She noted that Toomin received endorsements from both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times editorial boards. Jubeh also emphasized that he was recommended for retention by 12 of the 13 bar groups that evaluate Cook County judges. The Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago did not recommend Toomin.
Carmen Terrones, a restorative justice practitioner with 26 years of experience in juvenile probation, including four under Toomin, said she didn’t think his leadership had led to meaningful reform.
“Show me what it is that he’s doing so well that I could change my mind,” she said.
Marshan Allen, a juvenile justice advocate, said Toomin has posed a barrier to making the Cook County juvenile justice system more rehabilitative.
“There are changes trying to be made that affect youth in a positive way, and I know that Judge Toomin has been resistant, even in some cases outright refusing, to implement those programs,” he said.
The money raised at Tuesday’s fundraiser – tickets ranged from $250 to $5,000 – will go to a political committee Jubeh and Murphy created to support Toomin’s retention. It is relatively unusual for a Cook County judge to have their own committee since most of the retention judges, including Toomin, run as a “class.” Jubeh said the separate committee was necessary to dispel what she called “misinformation” from Toomin’s detractors.
The donate page on a website created for Toomin’s retention committee is even more direct:
“THE COOK COUNTY MACHINE IS SPREADING LIES ABOUT A HIGHLY QUALIFIED JUDGE WHO HAS DEVOTED HIS LIFE TO PUBLIC SERVICE AND JUDICIAL INTEGRITY. PLEASE HELP US FIGHT BACK AGAINST POLITICIANS OUT FOR PETTY REVENGE.”
Carlos Ballesteros contributed reporting.
This story was updated on Oct. 21 with confirmation that Lightfoot attended the fundraiser.