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Kim Foxx goes easier on low-level offenders, and that looks like justice in Cook County

Throwing the book at thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders does nothing to make our streets safe or help those offenders turn their lives around.

Shortly after the 2016 election, Cook County State’s Attorney-elect Kim Foxx spoke about violence in Chicago at the City Club of Chicago.
Shortly after the 2016 election, Cook County State’s Attorney-elect Kim Foxx spoke about violence in Chicago at the City Club of Chicago.
Lou Foglia | Sun-Times

Kim Foxx swept into office on a promise to deliver a more equitable form of justice in Cook County.

She vowed to take a new approach, curbing the prosecution of low-level crimes and steering small-time offenders away from the criminal justice system. Voters bought into her vision of a radically different state’s attorney’s office and chose her over incumbent Anita Alvarez by a wide margin in 2016.

As a new report from The Marshall Project now confirms, Foxx is, in fact, doing things in a new way.

Since taking office, Foxx has declined to prosecute more than 5,000 low-level, non-violent criminal cases that Alvarez likely would have prosecuted, the Marshall Project found. Overall, Alvarez’s office brought charges in 89% of felony criminal cases brought by police, while Foxx’s office has brought charges in 84% of cases.

We call that good news. Throwing the book at thousands of low-level, non-violent offenders, the best research has found, does nothing to make our streets safe, in part because most offenders come out of jail or prison in worse shape than ever. We have long favored alternatives to prosecution and incarceration, beginning with aggressive substance abuse treatment, for people picked up for non-violent crimes.

Our nation has far too many people behind bars — about 2.3 million — and they are disproportionately poor people of color. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, about 655 of every 100,000 people.

Here’s more of what The Marshall Project found:

  • Foxx declined to pursue criminal charges in 2,850 potential felony cases, many of them involving shoplifting. Before Foxx took office, about 300 felony shoplifting cases were filed each month. Under Foxx, that number has fallen to 70 cases.
  • Foxx’s office dismissed 2,300 drug cases that Alvarez likely would have pursued. Often, the accused individual was sent to treatment and counseling instead of court.
  • The one crime category in which Foxx appears to be stepping up prosecutions is gun offenses. In the first half of 2019, 25 percent of cases prosecuted by Foxx’s office were for the unlawful use of a weapon. The year before Foxx took office, the Project found, unlawful use of a weapon cases were less than 15 percent of all prosecuted cases.

Foxx’s critics have blasted her reform-minded approach, claiming that she’s making it harder for the police to fight crime. In April, suburban police chiefs and Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police gave Foxx a vote of “no confidence” and demanded that she resign.

“The general sentiment is that they will not be punished for crimes,” Martin Preib, second vice president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, told The Marshall Project. “There’s an overall increase in emboldening criminals across the board.”

But what, then, are we to make of this: Violent crime in Chicago and Cook County is on the decline. Murders and shootings in Chicago are at their lowest level in four years. Robberies, burglaries and vehicle thefts in the city are at 20-year lows. Crime in Cook County has been trending down for longer than that.

The Marshall Project study emphasizes that it’s impossible to credit Foxx’s approach to prosecutions for any of this. We just don’t know. Crime rates go up and down for all kinds of complicated and interrelated reasons.

But it is equally true that Foxx’s critics can’t point to a single piece of empirical evidence, other than the random anecdote, to make the case that her policies have made the people of Cook County any less safe.

All approaches to crime-fighting have strengths and weaknesses, and there are weaknesses to Foxx’s approach. Most notably, retailers complain that her reluctance to aggressively prosecute low-level shoplifting cases has led to more theft.

Under Foxx, prosecutors no longer charge shoplifting as a felony unless the stolen merchandise is worth $1,000 or more. That threshold is far higher than the $300 set by current state law.

“We’ve definitely seen a significant uptick,” Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, told us.

One hardware retailer has seen thefts go up 58%, Karr says, and other merchants report similar increases.

There might be an obvious compromise here. The state law threshold of $300 for felony shoplifting is clearly too low, but Foxx’s threshold of $1,000 might be high.

But all in all, Kim Foxx is doing what’s right.

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