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Column: Kim Foxx on bond reform, going after violent criminals and the 'reckoning' of #MeToo

Monday, February 26, 2018
Daily Southtown
by Ted Slowik

I appreciate the opportunity to occasionally sit down with elected officials and talk about issues, accountability and politics.

On Wednesday, I enjoyed a 36-minute interview with Cook County State's Attorney Kimberly M. Foxx, 45, of Flossmoor. When she was elected in November 2016, she became the first African-American woman to head the nation's second-largest prosecutor's office, overseeing nearly 800 attorneys and 1,500 total employees.

I asked about issues that concern south suburban residents and business owners, including her office's decision to change the way it prosecutes retail theft offenses. Some Southland municipal leaders and police chiefs have expressed frustration over the less-rigorous prosecutions of property crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

I also asked about changes to the bail process, her past service as chair of the Planned Parenthood of Illinois board, police-involved shootings, whether there is a "code of silence" in law enforcement, her thoughts on the #MeToo movement, the potential vulnerability of House Speaker Michael Madigan and other topics.

We met in her office on the 32nd floor of the county administration building in Chicago.

Foxx's office has ceased prosecuting misdemeanor driver's license offenses that are based on failure to pay tickets or fines. She also raised the threshold to $1,000 from $300 to prosecute retail thefts as felonies instead of misdemeanors. The office prosecuted 2,000 fewer retail theft cases in 2017, a 65 percent decline from the previous year.

"It would surprise most people that the No. 1 offense in 2016 in Cook County wasn't gun offenses, it was retail theft," Foxx said.

The Illinois threshold of $300 was much lower than neighboring states, she said.

"When we looked at Indiana, the liberal bastion to the east, theirs was $750. When we looked at Wisconsin it was $2,000," she said.

She said she understood why the change would create concern in Orland Park, Tinley Park and other towns. She said she wants to educate civic leaders about reasons for the policy change.

"I know in the Southland there's a large retail district there," she said. "Let's talk about what we really want here. We want to make sure that people aren't stealing."

The new approach aims to address underlying causes of crime, Foxx said. Her office found most thefts were not by sophisticated crime rings, but by many lower-income people. Many offenders also struggle with drug abuse or mental health issues, she said.

"As business taxpayers, you're spending a lot of money using the criminal justice system on those people that get that felony conviction that impedes their ability to find employment, which means they're not contributing to the tax base that you and I continue to contribute to, and we're precluding them from ever getting involved in that," she said.

Foxx spoke about redeployment of her office's resources. She said prosecutions of violent crimes remain the top priority. Resources previously spent prosecuting lower-level offenses are now devoted to pursuing more serious cases.

"I think it's hard sometimes for folks to see that. It's like a slap on the wrist," Foxx said. "If we look at the amount of resources that we put into these lower-level cases and look at the return on investment, it's not there."

I said Cook County residents made it clear during the revolt over the penny-an-ounce sweetened beverage tax that they were fed up with high taxes and wanted the county to cut services instead.

"I understand the frustration. I live in the Southland," she said. "I pay a ridiculous amount in property taxes. I want to be able to see a return on that. Good-quality services shouldn't be compromised by yearly fights about how we're going to pay for them."

Her office lost a number of attorneys and other employees who quit last year to pursue other opportunities due to uncertainty over the funding situation, she said.

"That attrition that happened also meant we had higher caseloads for folks," Foxx said. "It put a real stress on our already limited resources. It's going to take us a while to dig out of that."

She shifted some attorneys from prosecuting misdemeanor driver's license offenses to work on more serious cases.

"We looked at traffic and we found we do a significant amount of DUI cases," she said. "That is incredibly important to us and we should be doing them. Second to that were these driving on a suspended license due to an inability to pay cases."

Prosecutors were tied up in court appearances where judges routinely granted continuances due to a defendant's inability to pay.

"There's no arguing, no Perry Mason moment," she said. "You were a glorified bill collector."

Another change has been reducing the number of people held at the Cook County Jail due to an inability to post bail for nonviolent offenses. The changes addresses fairness and equality, but also public safety, she said.

"If you're involved in a criminal enterprise — in a gang — going to jail and having to get bailed out is the cost of doing business," Foxx said. "Dangerous people with money could get out while nonviolent people who were poor couldn't.

"Bond reform is about making sure we have people in jail for the right reasons and we're not punishing people, assigning guilt to them, because they cannot afford to make their bail."

Foxx said she's not involved with Planned Parenthood, which recently opened a clinic in Flossmoor. The facility in the south suburbs offers abortion among its services.

"When I was on the board we were looking strategically at what does access to care look like years down the line and there was a gap in the Southland.

"Having services in the Southland, which is historically ignored in broader conversations, was really important to me. I was surprised driving down Governors Highway (and saw it). I understand how they operate. It can be very controversial bringing those services into communities. It was very stealth."

I asked about politics, and the vacant Rich Township Democratic committeeman post previously held by the late Tim Bradford. She said she is not active in politics because her office is one of three members of the Cook County Electoral Board that decides petition challenges and other local election disputes.

"What I want is for no one to wonder for a moment if an allegiance that I have would make me bias or partial. I have absented myself from those conversations," she said.

She said she was not endorsing anyone in Democratic primaries for governor, attorney general, Cook County assessor and other contests.

"This is a role that shouldn't be politicized," she said. "I think it gets really dangerous. I'm sure people could say, 'Well, you've politicized it by taking on these social issues.' But it's always in the framework of safety."

Foxx grew up in the Cabrini Green public housing project and previously worked for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, her political mentor. I asked her thoughts about a controversial Chicago Reader cover that depicted comments about African-Americans that gubernatorial hopeful J.B. Pritzker made to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"It was about what I found to be an exploitation of African-Americans in the political process," she said. "The use of a lawn jockey is offensive on so many levels. I was disheartened, and disappointed.

"There's a reason I had not been engaged in politics most of my career. I voted, but I wasn't really actively engaged because I didn't believe the system recognized people who came from neighborhoods like mine. We were a convenience every couple of years for votes."

I asked if there was a "code of silence," the notion that police officers would not incriminate colleagues accused of wrongfully shooting suspects or other misconduct.

"I think in most professions there's an inclination to want to believe and protect those who do the work that you do," she said. "I think there have been a number of cases where if someone had spoken up earlier, you could have intervened earlier. But I don't think it is unique to police, prosecutors offices (or) defense attorney offices. There's an inclination to protect."

Foxx spoke at the Women's March in Chicago in January and has related her own experience being sexually harassed. Two aides to Madigan have resigned amid harassment claims, and Madigan faces growing calls to resign his chairmanship of the state Democratic Party.

"I think it's time for a real reckoning," she said of the #MeToo movement in general. "It sounds really ominous and scary. But it's what happens when you don't have real diversity in workplaces.

"I think what we're seeing is it can't be ignored. We can't pretend anymore. That silence that permeated those spaces won't be tolerated. You have to deal with it. It's a moment of reckoning. I'm very excited to be alive right now, to watch this happen."

Twitter @tedslowik

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