Six ways to champion justice in state’s attorney’s office

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Kim Foxx (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Kim Foxx pledged to restore faith in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, and that above all is why she won Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Foxx took on an incumbent, Anita Alvarez, who could boast far more experience as a prosecutor and administrator, but so many sad stories had unfolded over the last several years about justice delayed or denied.  Stories about police-involved shootings investigated too slowly by the state’s attorney’s office. Stories about wrongful convictions that the office seemed reluctant to revisit.

Assuming Foxx now wins in the November general election, where she faces relatively weak opposition, she must bring structural reform to the state’s attorney’s office, or more of the same will happen on her watch. It is in the nature of the beast for a prosecutor’s office to go easy on misconduct by the police, their daily partners in fighting crime. And it should surprise no one that prosecutors resist acknowledging mistakes made in the past that may have put an innocent person behind bars.

Here are six ways Kim Foxx can reform the Cook County state’s attorney’s office:

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– A special unit of the the Cook County state’s attorney’s office is supposed to review cases to make sure innocent people are not mistakenly sent to jail. But the Conviction Integrity Unit is widely seen as a toothless lapdog, reluctant to challenge the work of police and other prosecutors. Elsewhere in the nation, to keep such special teams from becoming too chummy with those they are supposed investigate, state’s attorney’s offices have set up outside advisory boards — an excellent idea. The advisory board is usually made up of leading criminal justice experts, including university researchers and former prosecutors, who advise the state’s attorney on national best practices and evolving issues in the area of wrongful convictions. The Cook County office has a long history of failing to act aggressively when alerted to a possible wrongful conviction.


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-Police violence and perjury require an aggressive, forthright response, not endless delays. One option would be to appoint a special prosecutor whenever there is a fatal police shooting. But judges would have to do that. We urge instead the creation of a special unit within the state’s attorney’s office to investigate police violence and possible perjury. A special grand jury empaneled for a year could subpoena officers involved in violence to appear before it immediately. Also, when unarmed citizens are shot and slain by police, the officers on the scene who did not shoot could be granted limited immunity that would immunize them from all but perjury prosecutions. That would circumvent provisions in the city contract with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, that now delays investigations.

– When a corrupt police officer is caught doing such things as planting evidence, the state’s attorney should be pro-active in tracking down other cases that relied on that officer’s now-discredited testimony. Such cases should be re-investigated immediately by an independent conviction integrity unit to ensure an innocent person was not convicted based on the officer’s unreliable testimony.

– Local officials, most prominently Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart, have complained for years about how the county’s Bond Court malfunctions. Some suspects are freed on bond while others charged with lesser offenses remain in jail simply because they can’t come up with bail money. That is not only unjust and an unnecessary expense for taxpayers; it also leads to some innocent suspects pleading guilty just to get out of jail. GPS technology has advanced to the point that many more people can be safely released on electronic monitoring, a reform the state’s attorney’s office should pursue with the chief judge and sheriff.

– Defense lawyers frequently complain about “Brady violations” — failures by county prosecutors to provide exculpatory information to defendants, as is legally required. Thorough training should be given to all assistant state’s attorneys in the felony trial and juvenile divisions on the rules of evidence, the search-and-seizure protections in the Fourth Amendment, and ethics. When assistant state’s attorneys violate the rules even after training, appropriate disciplinary measures should be imposed.

– Despite Preckwinkle’s efforts to reduce jail populations, too many nonviolent offenders remain in custody. The state’s attorney’s office should ramp up diversion programs for nonviolent felonies, and for juvenile felonies less serious than homicide or attempted homicide. A revised plea-bargaining process that includes diversion and redemption should be put in place for adult non-homicide violent felonies.

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