As Cook County voters prepare to pick their next top prosecutor, confidence in the criminal justice system is at a low point.
Questions about the handling of the Laquan McDonald case and other police shootings have prompted a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department. Local, state, and national officials from both parties are pushing to reduce jail and prison populations. And amid the calls for reform, violent crime has spiked in Chicago, as it has in many other cities.
Two-term State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez says these are all reasons why her experience is needed more than ever. Her challengers — former prosecutors Kim Foxx and Donna More — counter that ousting Alvarez is the first change that needs to be made.
“The failings of our system right now are because civil, community, faith leaders don’t trust Anita Alvarez,” Foxx says.
“Given the state that we’re in, with our community on the verge of destabilization, I’m not sure she’s done anything right in the last seven years,” says More.
Alvarez says her opponents lack integrity and don’t know what they’re talking about.
“Unfortunately, they have both tried to make this race about one thing,” Alvarez says. “While that’s important, and the issue of confidence in the criminal justice system is extremely important, there is so much that this office entails.”
Alvarez has been under fire for her decisions in a number of high-profile cases involving potential police misconduct. A police dashcam video showed Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times in October 2014 as the 17-year-old appeared to be walking away. Yet Alvarez waited more than a year to charge Van Dyke with murder — and did so just hours before the video was made public as the result of a court order.
“It shows a lack of experience to say that you can look at a video and in 24 hours say you can charge this case,” Alvarez says.
Cases involving police shootings are “extremely complex,” according to Alvarez, because cops are authorized to use force. And in this case, federal authorities were also investigating.
“I stand by what we did,” she says. “If mistakes were made, it’s that I didn’t inform the public what the status was as we were going along.”
To bring more transparency to such cases, Alvarez says she’s going to start posting regular updates on the state’s attorney’s website.
Foxx and More say that’s not enough.
“Part of the reason our system is so flawed under Anita is that she doesn’t even acknowledge there’s a problem,” Foxx says.
She says she would seek the appointment of a special prosecutor in all police shootings to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest between the state’s attorney’s office and the police.
More says the county can’t afford special prosecutors for every such case. Instead, she says she would form a special unit of the state’s attorney’s office that doesn’t work with the police and assign them the job of investigating police shootings.
“I keep asking Anita, ‘What evidence did you have on Day 400 that you didn’t have early on?’ ” More says.
Pointing to the surge in violence in Chicago — including 95 murders in the first two months of the year — Alvarez argues that her opponents don’t understand the primary mission of the state’s attorney’s office.
“We stand up for victims of crime,” she says.
Alvarez says she has prosecuted thousands of violent criminals since joining the state’s attorney’s office out of law school in 1986. She describes the job as her “life’s work.”
For much of her career, Alvarez has pushed for tougher gun laws. The minimum sentence for illegal gun possession is a year, but she points out that many convicted of the crime serve only months, if they’re given any time at all.
She continues to call for longer mandatory minimums — a proposition that’s been blocked in Springfield by legislators wary of imprisoning more people for possessing a gun, most of them black and Hispanic men, even as those who traffic guns rarely get prosecuted.
“You need to go after the top of the food chain,” says More, a partner at the Fox Rothschild law firm who previously worked in the state’s attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office.
She says she would like to see the creation of a central gun court, allowing prosecutors and judges to identify bigger players in the illegal gun trade, including importers and sellers.
Foxx says the state’s attorney’s office should crack down on gun traffickers and straw purchasers by working more closely with other law enforcement agencies. The office also needs stronger ties to communities hit hardest by gun violence, according to Foxx, who says, “A lot of people are afraid because they don’t believe authorities will protect them.”
Alvarez says that during the three decades she’s been a prosecutor, views of justice have evolved — even her own. She says she’s been a leader in making the office “smart on crime,” rather than merely tough on it.
“I can talk for hours about all the changes I’ve made,” she says, citing policies to drop some marijuana cases and steer drug offenders to treatment instead of jail.
She’s also been a national leader in targeting gangs and pimps responsible for human trafficking while helping sex workers get access to social services.
But Foxx says Alvarez fought reforms for the bail-bond system, juvenile offenders and drug crimes that were pushed by officials including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, whom Foxx served as chief of staff from 2013 to 2015.
“We had a state’s attorney who literally was standing with her arms folded and saying, ‘This is not my business,’ ” Foxx says.
The state’s attorney’s office continues to prosecute every felony drug arrest, even those involving possession of just trace amounts. Judges routinely throw out thousands of such cases a year, but suspects often spend days or weeks in jail before that happens.
Alvarez says there are too many felony drug cases to conduct reviews of each one.
Foxx says the current process is costly and impractical: “It would seem that if you already know they’re going to throw out a case, just don’t charge it.”
As much as they’ve sparred over policy, the three state’s attorney’s candidates have spent even more time questioning each other’s integrity.
Alvarez points out that More served as a regulator on the Illinois Gaming Board and then represented gaming interests as an attorney in private practice.
“There’s no conflict in what I did,” More responds. “I made sure my clients adhered to the rules.”
More hits back at Alvarez for accepting campaign contributions from law firms that have sued Cook County, which the state’s attorney’s office defends in civil cases.
“I have a lot of friends in the legal community,” Alvarez says.
She has called out Foxx for accepting campaign contributions from county contractors and for failing to disclose a 2015 poll conducted for her by Preckwinkle — an infraction of election law for which the Foxx campaign was fined.
Foxx criticizes Alvarez for accepting campaign money from her employees and also takes a swipe at More for pouring more than $603,000 of her own family’s money into her campaign.
“It’s campaign season, so it’s political smear time,” Foxx says. “Our issues have been so dire around our criminal justice system for so long, and this is a distraction.”
VITAL STATS: State’s attorney candidates
Background: Cook County state’s attorney, prosecutor.
Grew up in: Pilsen.
Top contributors: Herself and husband James Gomez, Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters.
Mission: Standing with crime victims.
On police shootings: Post updates online.
On pot: Decriminalize low-level possession.
Favorite crime or legal show: None. Prefers Blackhawks and Sox games.
Background: Cook County prosecutor, chief of staff to Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle.
Grew up in: Cabrini-Green.
Top contributors: Business owner Fred Eychaner, Preckwinkle.
Mission: Restoring trust.
On police shootings: Use special prosecutors.
On pot: Decriminalize low-level possession.
Favorite crime or legal show: “Law & Order.”
Background: Cook County prosecutor, federal prosecutor, partner at Fox Rothschild.
Grew up in: Evanston.
Top contributors: Herself, attorney Thomas Gearen.
Mission: Independence and transparency.
On police shootings: Create special investigative unit.
On pot: Let legislators handle it.
Favorite crime or legal show: “The Good Wife.”