The number of prison sentences for Black and Latinx people in Cook County has gone down during the first three years of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s tenure, according to a report published today by four local advocacy groups that support criminal justice reform.
On average, 300 fewer Black or Latinx defendants received a prison sentence each month in Cook County in 2019, compared with 2012, a year with similar crime rates, according to the report.
The report attributes this drop to a reduction in felony retail theft charges and an increase in decisions to reject or drop charges.
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The report comes just one day after a grand jury voted to reinstate charges against actor Jussie Smollett, alleging that he staged a hate crime against himself.
The new charges fueled attacks against Foxx’s integrity by her opponents in the upcoming Democratic primary, with one candidate calling on Foxx to step down. Foxx shot back by calling the timing of the charges “Comey-like,” implying that special prosecutor Dan Webb had a political motive for his decision.
Reclaim Chicago, The People’s Lobby, the Chicago Council of Lawyers, and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice collaborated on the report, which is the sixth in a series aimed at evaluating Foxx’s tenure as state’s attorney.
A previous report found a drop in prison sentences overall in Foxx’s first two years. Black and Latinx people make up nearly 90 percent of people sentenced to prison in Cook County, according to a 2018 report from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
In a press conference Wednesday morning, local advocates involved in the report drew contrasts between Foxx and her predecessor, Anita Alvarez, and spoke about the effects of mass incarceration on local communities.
Sarah Staudt, a senior policy analyst and staff attorney with Chicago Appleseed, noted a 34 percent drop in incarceration rates for Black and Latinx people under Foxx’s administration.
“That means more people in their communities, more people with their families, and less of an impact of mass incarceration on the neighborhoods and the communities that have been most hit,” Staudt said.
Staudt also praised Foxx for changing the culture around felony review, the process by which prosecutors decide whether to bring charges. She said that the process used to be a “rubber stamp” for police officers, but assistant state’s attorneys have become more discerning under Foxx.
“In cases where there is not enough evidence, they are asking the police not to charge the case immediately but to go back and investigate so we make sure that we have fewer innocent people moving through the system,” she said.
Reverend Jacques Conway, a district superintendent for the United Methodist Church, emphasized the impact of felony convictions on local communities and highlighted structural issues in the criminal justice system.
“We experience first-hand the ramifications of men and women who are incarcerated who get out as felons who cannot even support their families because of the mistake they’ve made,” he said. “Once they have a felony, they are locked out of society.”
Policies that led to mass incarceration have failed to address the root causes of crime in Cook County, according to Reverend Charles Straight, a Methodist pastor.
“The war on drugs and other failed policies have not only driven the mass incarceration rates for Black and Latinx people,” said Rev. Straight. “It’s also failed to make our community safer.”
“The vast majority of people given sentences of incarceration in Cook County are Black and Latinx,” he continued. “So decreasing incarceration is a significant step in fighting racism of the criminal justice system here in Cook County.”