Racial Justice in Prosecution
In recent decades, state’s attorneys across Illinois have played an instrumental role in shaping the law enforcement, court and prison systems. Elected to lead county level prosecution, these office holders exercise expansive authority to determine how the law is applied and justice is pursued. Despite their tremendous influence, state’s attorneys operate local prosecutors offices with minimal public scrutiny, shielded from requirements of transparency and constituent answerability.
Consequently, state’s attorneys throughout Illinois have routinely failed to address the demands of Black residents in on issues of police misconduct, criminal justice reform and prison divestment. Absent key mechanisms of accountability, Illinois prosecutors have served to actively undermine the interests of Black constituents through policies and practices that perpetuate inhumane and racialized systems of mass incarceration and police impunity.
The Racial Justice in Prosecution initiative aims to ensure that elected prosecutors serve the interests of all constituents by implementing policies that advance racial equity in local law enforcement, court and prison systems. In the coming weeks and months, the campaign will offer residents critical analysis on the racial justice impact of their elected state’s attorneys, and issue policy recommendations for local prosecutors offices. Ahead of the 2020 state’s attorneys races, the Racial Justice in Prosecution initiative will also mobilize communities most adversely impacted by the criminal justice system to elect candidates across Illinois that stand for universal equity, justice and liberation.
The following launch report offers insight into the political landscape of county level prosecution in Illinois, key findings on the racial justice impact of local state's attorneys, and an overview of the tactics and goals of the Racial Justice in Prosecution initiative. As we approach the 2020 elections, CRGE will keep our allies and supporters informed of our organizing and electoral work. And in the coming months, the Racial Justice in Prosecution initiative will issue a series of updates, action alerts and reports, including a Racial Justice Assessment of County Prosecutors and a 2020 Racial Justice in Prosecution Voter Guide.
The Power of Prosecutors
In every county across Illinois, constituents elect a state’s attorney to oversee local prosecution. Serving as gatekeeper to the criminal justice system, county prosecutors exercise wide discretion as to how law and justice are enforced. At a host of key junctures in criminal proceedings, state’s attorney's offices make critical decisions that have far reaching implications for Illinois’ law enforcement and prison systems. County prosecutors determine charging procedures, bail recommendations, plea deals, jury selection, file discovery and sentencing guidance. At each point of discretion, attorneys have the opportunity to either perpetuate racialized practices of mass incarceration, or conversely, to advance equity, opportunity and justice.
Racial Justice in Charging Practices
County state’s attorneys further influence racial justice through the policies they implement for handling cases of police misconduct. Elected prosecutors have the opportunity to pursue justice and accountability by establishing procedures that ensure independence, impartiality and transparency in the investigation and charging of police wrongdoing. Alternatively, state attorneys may elect to perpetuate systems of racialized police violence and impunity by actively thwarting the open investigation and prosecution of alleged officer abuse.
County state’s attorneys also leverage their authority to shape law enforcement and criminal justice policy at the state level. Through the politically powerful Illinois State’s Attorneys Association (ISSA), head prosecutors lobby to pass legislation that serves their electoral and ideological interests. State’s attorneys exert their clout to as a means to preserve destructive systems of racialized policing and mass incarceration, or by contrast, in the service of equal justice and liberation.
The immense power county state’s attorneys command is ultimately derived from the constituents they are elected to serve. In order to achieve equity and justice in the legal system, local residents must hold chief prosecutors accountable through performance evaluation, issue advocacy and direct elections.
The Racialized Impact of Illinois Prosecutors
Beginning in the early 1980s, county state’s attorneys throughout Illinois radically transformed their approach to law enforcement, giving rise to the racialized practices of policing and criminal justice that persist in the present day. Amid an onslaught of sensationalized reporting on national crime rates and revived cultural myths of Black criminality, prosecutorial candidates in Illinois mounted tough-on-crime campaigns, stoking fear among local voters and fanning the flames of racial resentment for electoral advantage. Once in office, county state’s attorneys implemented commensurately aggressive prosecutorial practices.
In 1982, Illinois prosecutors proceeded to rapidly escalate county level felony filings, more than doubling the statewide caseload within two decades. After crime rates began to steadily decline in the mid ‘90s, state’s attorneys continued to pursue politically advantageous law-and-order policies, sustaining astoundingly elevated rates of felony charges. Draconian law enforcement tactics propelled an unprecedented acceleration in Illinois' incarceration rates. Between 1989 and 2013, the state witnessed a twofold increase in its prison population. This drastic upsurge culminated in 2014, when the Illinois Department of Corrections facilities reached 150% of design capacity.
Due to pervasive biases within law enforcement and the courts, as well as decades of systemic racialized disinvestment, people of color are grossly overrepresented in Illinois’ prison system, with the ratio of Black to white inmates exceeding eight to one. The staggering racial disparities within Illinois' criminal justice system are exacerbated by a lack of equitable racial representation among county state's attorneys. While Black constituents represent 15% of the state population and 56% of the prison system, less than 2% of elected prosecutors in Illinois are African American.
Misguided Tough-on-Crime Tactics
Beginning in 1982, Illinois prosecutors rapidly escalated the number of felonies filed, more than doubling the total number of cases within two decades. Despite the steady decline in arrest and crime rates starting in the mid '90s, prosecutors continued to pursue politically advantageous law-and-order policies, sustaining grossly elevated rates of felony filings.
County state’s attorneys have also leveraged their influence to shape criminal justice policy in the Illinois legislature. Through ISSA, elected prosecutors have lobbied in sharp opposition to policies that would promote racial justice, including bail reform, transparency in plea deals and automatic expungement of conviction records. The organization has also aggressively campaigned to increase mandatory minimum sentencing and reinstate the death penalty. ISSA’s regressive legislative agenda runs directly counter to the interests of Black safety, opportunity and liberation in Illinois.
Transforming Prosecution: State's Attorney Kim Foxx
For decades, communities of color in Cook County have been subject to anti-Black police abuse and racially targeted systems of law enforcement. The perpetuation of these injustices is largely attributable to the failed policies of a succession of local state’s attorneys. Ignoring the interests of Black and Brown constituents, Cook County’s elected prosecutors embraced politically expedient tough-on-crime practices. These misguided tactics failed in their purported intent to deter crime, and served to exacerbate the symptoms of racialized inequality, disinvestment and injustice that underpin disparities in neighborhood safety.
In the 2016 state’s attorney’s race, a trailblazing advocate for prosecutorial reform offered voters a progressive alternative to Cook County’s failed law-and-order doctrine. Promising to adopt more humane and effective methods of law enforcement, then-candidate, Kim Foxx presented voters of color with a compelling new vision of neighborhood safety and liberation.
Once in office, State’s Attorney Foxx upheld her commitment to reform Cook County’s prosecutorial system. Within a month of inauguration, she raised the threshold for charging felony retail theft from $300 to $1000. Consequently, during Foxx’s second full year as state’s attorney, 73% fewer residents were charged with felony retail theft than in the last year of her predecessor’s term. In an effort to curb the prosecution of poverty, Foxx’s office also stopped charging drivers whose licenses had been suspended due to an inability to pay parking tickets or other regressive fees. As a result, in 2018, 36% fewer drivers were prosecuted for a suspended license than in her predecessor's final year as state’s attorney.
Applying Prosecutorial Discretion
State's attorneys have the power to stem the prison pipeline by exercising discretion in the felony review process. In many cases, prosecutors may elect to either reject or approve charges filed by local police. In 2018, under Foxx’s policies, the felony review case rejection rate was 60% higher than in the final year of her predecessor’s term.
State’s Attorney Foxx also leveraged the platform of her office to advocate for progressive criminal justice policies in the Illinois legislature, including automatic expungement of conviction records and the legalization of specified amounts of recreational cannabis. Moreover, in 2018 Foxx launched an initiative to improve transparency of the State’s Attorney’s office through an unprecedented disclosure of Cook County prosecutorial data, dating back to 2011.
Within her first two and a half years in office, Foxx’s transformative approach to law enforcement has yielded resoundingly positive results for Cook County residents, propelling significant trends of both decarceration and crime reduction. The traction Foxx has made in advancing equity and justice in the legal system has prompted contentious backlash among various political forces devoted to the preservation of police impunity, mass incarceration and systems of white supremacy. Grasping unsuccessfully for sound critique of her performance record, Foxx’s detractors have resorted to utter fabrication. Among the growing assortment of unfounded accusations waged against the State’s Attorney, is the enduring assertion that her policies propelled an upsurge in Chicago’s gun violence rate. To the contrary, a discrete rise in city shootings predated Foxx’s inauguration, and abated shortly after. Claims that Foxx has ignored Chicago’s ongoing gun violence crisis may be refuted by the fact that she has prioritized internal resources for gun crimes, while her predecessor pursued prosecution of retail theft over any other offense category.
In order to ensure that Cook County continues on the path of equity and justice under the law, communities must rally support behind the sitting State’s Attorney, and mobilize voters to turn out in the 2020 primaries and general election to secure a second term for Foxx.
Racial Justice Assessment Tool
The following assessment offers prosecutors and constituents a framework with which to evaluate the racial justice impact of policies and practices within local state’s attorneys’ offices.
Does the office exercise discretion and restraint to ensure humane, equitable and cost effective charging practices?
2020 Prosecutor Races in Illinois
In 2020, Illinois residents will elect state’s attorneys to lead local prosecution in every county across the state. These races present an invaluable opportunity to leverage grassroots voting power as means to transform Illinois’ law enforcement, court and prison systems. Ahead of the 2020 primary and general elections, CRGE will launch a far reaching voter engagement campaign to ensure that communities most adversely impacted by Illinois’ criminal justice system play a decisive role in the outcomes of these county races.
CRGE is working to assess the racial impact of state’s attorneys offices in Illinois counties with relatively high Black voter representation in order to identify key incumbent prosecutors who are either serving to advance, or alternately, undermine equity, justice and liberation in the criminal justice system. Under the direction of its membership, CRGE will apply this analysis to determine official campaign endorsements and opposition in the 2020 state’s attorneys races.
CRGE will also conduct localized outreach throughout the state to mobilize grassroots challengers who stand with communities of color on issues of police accountability and prison divestment. CRGE extends an open call for progressive candidates who are interested in consideration for campaign endorsement and field support in the 2020 prosecutors elections.
In 2019, CRGE will mount a highly tactical voter engagement campaign, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of local residents to elect candidates who will advance racial progress in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. CRGE will identify key targets, craft strategic messaging and deploy a comprehensive array of outreach methods to ensure that Black voters determine the outcomes of key primary and general elections throughout Illinois.
Prosecutor Reform Beyond 2020
In order to achieve a vision of Black safety, equity and liberation, CRGE is dedicated to long term movement building. Beyond the 2020 elections, we will continue to deepen our organizing relationships in Illinois communities most impacted by racialized policing, incarceration and disinvestment. Through this critical engagement work, CRGE will grow its pipeline of Black leadership, advance opportunities for political education and foster lasting voter engagement.
CRGE will also continue to hold elected prosecutors across the state accountable to the interests and demands of constituents of color. We will advance legislation in the Illinois statehouse to require data transparency from local state’s attorneys’ offices, and directly engage prosecutors with our policy agenda for racial justice in law enforcement. CRGE will also analyze the racial impact of local state’s attorneys’ offices, and share findings with county residents. Moreover, we will mount strategic pressure campaigns to ensure that racial justice in prosecution emerges as a prevailing political imperative.
Finally, CRGE will transform the very nature of prosecutorial elections by championing policies that advance racial equity in democracy, including public campaign finance, ranked choice voting, citizens initiated ballot referendum, carceral enfranchisement, and the abolition of prison gerrymandering.
As we approach the 2020 elections, CRGE will keep our allies and supporters informed of our organizing and electoral work. In the coming months, the Racial Justice in Prosecution initiative will issue a series of updates, action alerts and reports, including a Racial Justice Assessment of County Prosecutors and a 2020 Racial Justice in Prosecution Voter Guide.