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On the South Side of Chicago, a 19-year-old and his family were victims of an armed robbery, a home invasion, and a shooting within three weeks. He was traumatized and afraid, and bought a handgun for protection even though he didn’t have a concealed carry license or a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card.

He was arrested by Chicago Police and charged with unlawful use of a weapon, a class 4 felony. He could have been convicted and sentenced to up to two years in prison, but the prosecutorial discretion available in this case allowed the state to consider surrounding factors and the teenager eventually received probation. 

When Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was elected 2016, she entered with a promise to reform the way the second largest county in the country would handle crime and justice. In a report released Wednesday from criminal justice reform groups Chicago Appleseed Fund, The People’s Lobby and Reclaim Chicago, surveys from 28 public defenders reported the biggest change has been an emphasis on prosecutorial discretion. This means giving the 800 prosecutors in her office, many of whom were hired by her predecessors, greater flexibility to consider the individual circumstances of each case.

Chicago Appleseed Fund Senior Policy Analyst Sarah Staudt releases a new report surveying defense attorneys on reforms from Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office.

“The big thing they all said was that the big achievement Foxx has had in changing the culture of her office is an increase in her prosecutors’ ability on the ground to look at every case individually, not to always ask for the highest sentence every single time,” said Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst with Chicago Appleseed Fund.

According to the report, the culture change has meant prosecutors can consider the nuances of each case, rather than pursuing a rigid policy of incarceration. Though this can sometimes lead critics to accuse her of being “soft on crime,” especially when it comes to gun charges, Staudt said the narrative often comes from confusion when gun possession charges are lumped together with gun crimes as a whole.

“[Gun possession] cases are just as diverse as the range of any other set of cases that goes before the court, they can range from anywhere from someone who simply didn’t fill out paperwork or pay the fee for a concealed carry license, all the way up to somebody who maybe we need to be looking at more carefully at whether they’re a threat,” Staudt said.

The report also found Foxx has increased her office’s use of alternatives to incarceration when it comes to drug crimes, noting that there’s been an increase in the number of diversion programs and greater access has been granted to those who qualify. Data from Foxx’s office shows she has dismissed more than 3,100 cases through deferred prosecution, and that 81% of deferred prosecution cases are drug cases. In Illinois, possession of any amount of a drug other than cannabis must be charged as a felony, which makes it harder for a policy from Foxx to decrease the penalties in the same way she decreased penalties for retail thefts by raising the felony threshold. Interviewees in the report said more and more cases of drug charges, especially with small quantities of drugs, are being dismissed altogether.

“Every person who comes before the court has their own story, their own circumstances and every crime has its own story and its own circumstances,” Staudt said. “Giving the same out come to everybody isn’t providing us safety and justice, it’s just locking up more and more and more people.”

This is the fifth report in a series of analysis by these reform groups to track Foxx’s leadership. The groups have also publicly supported Foxx during her 2016 election. They’ve found that reforms since she’s taken over the office have led to a nearly 20% drop in incarceration. Much of that has been because of the biggest change in Cook County’s criminal justice system — bond reform. Foxx has had allies in the Legislature and in Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans in establishing new bail practices mandating affordable bonds. According to Evans, the number of inmates in Cook County Jail dropped by more than 1,600 following this mandate.

“We remain committed to addressing the historic inequities in our criminal justice system through our implementation of fair and just prosecution and sentencing alternatives,” said Foxx in a written statement from her office. “Our unprecedented transparency allows a comprehensive review of our work as we continue to focus on increasing public safety in communities across Cook County.”

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....