More than 1,000 low-level marijuana convictions were expunged last week in the first wave of an effort to automatically clear tens of thousands of low-level marijuana offenses. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx personally presented the first 100 names of petitions one-by-one before the circuit court’s chief judge.

The issue is personal for Foxx, who remembers seeing her mother smoke marijuana as Foxx grew up.

“While that may not be behavior that I appreciated,…I knew she wasn’t a criminal,” Foxx said. “She was always a good mom. She was always someone who was trying to instill good values into me.”

Foxx’s mother was never convicted of a marijuana possession, but Foxx thought of others whose life trajectories were changed because they were. As Illinois moved toward legalizing recreational marijuana in the next three weeks, she said the expungements are part of prioritizing social equity as some people set up to make huge profits from the same substance others were prosecuted for.

“It wasn’t just about making sure that people could get in the business,” Foxx said “There are people who can’t even get a job at McDonald’s because of a marijuana conviction. “So I thought the casualness of, ‘Oh, we’re going to legalize marijuana,’ while the casualties of the war on drugs would just be left behind, was woefully unfair.”

Foxx often discusses her personal background when explaining her criminal justice reform platform. She grew up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project, a development with a reputation for neglect and crime. She’s been open about being a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Her mother, who had Foxx when she was only 18 years old, shaped a huge amount of her perspective.

“I think my mother was one of the most brilliant people alive, and I say that as someone who has fought with her for the entirety of our lives,” Foxx said. “But what she had to offer to the world was marginalized or minimized because she was a young Black mother from the projects.”

Foxx is critical of the systems that marginalize or diminish people who come from neighborhoods with frequent violence and high poverty.

“We don’t believe that we are losing anything when a kid dies in Lawndale or when there is a gang related shooting somewhere,” she said. “I know people who’ve been shot. I know people who have shot.”

After working as an assistant state’s attorney for 12 years, Foxx stepped up to run for state’s attorney.

An election shaped by activists

In 2016, Foxx ran for Cook County state’s attorney against two-term incumbent opponent Anita Alvarez. At the time, Alvarez was facing criticism from the young Black-activist-led #ByeAnita movement, which sprang up after the release of a video which showed Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald sixteen times. Van Dyke has since been convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison.  Four Chicago police officers were fired over allegations they helped cover up the shooting.

Leading up to the election, groups including Black Lives Matter, Assata’s Daughters, and Black Youth Project 100 staged protests and urged voters against voting for Alvarez. They flooded social media with the #ByeAnita hashtag and hung banners around the city that read “Blood on the ballot” and “Adios Anita 16 shots and a cover up.”

“It was an interesting place for activists to be in a prosecutor’s race. I mean, you have a lot of people who were abolitionists, you have a lot of people who would go ‘start this all over,’” Foxx said. “So what they said immediately thereafter was, ‘We weren’t saying “Bye, Anita, ‘Hello, Kim.’”

Black Lives Matter activist Kofi Ademola said the activist involvement in that election was not just a result of outrage over the handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting, but also arose from anger at Alvarez’s ongoing refusal to hold police accountable in other instances where there was evidence of wrongdoing. At the time, Ademola had been working closely with Dorothy Holmes, the mother of Ronald Johnson III, who was fatally shot by Chicago Police Officer George Hernandez. After video of that shooting was released, Alvarez announced she would not bring charges because it appeared to support the officer’s claim that he had been carrying a weapon.

“What we had seen not just with her case but with a lot of cases, [was that] the state’s attorney’s almost [showed] disdain towards families trying to get justice for their loved ones lost to police violence,” Ademola said.

After the election, activist groups made clear they intended to hold Foxx accountable just as they did Alvarez.

“We did this for Rekia. We did this for Laquan. We won’t stop until we’re free and Kim Foxx should know that as well,” read a post-election tweet from Assata’s Daughters.  Founder Page May emphasizes that in future elections, Assata’s Daughters won’t endorse Foxx or anyone else, and instead will continue to spearhead campaigns outside electoral politics that move the organization’s abolitionist goals forward.

“People are craving good community resources, there is a shift in how people understand what keeps communities and people safe,” May said.

National shift toward justice

Since Foxx has been in office, a growing number of prosecutors running on progressive platforms have been elected around the country.

About one month after winning his closely watched 2019 election as San Francisco District Attorney, Chesa Boudin plans to return to his hometown of Chicago.

His victory was perceived as a sign of shifting awareness and attitudes from voters who gravitated toward his promises to end mass incarceration.

On his visit to Chicago, he’ll meet with Foxx, which she says has become a tradition for her since a few other reform-minded prosecutors have sought her support. As their ranks have grown, an informal network has sprung up.

During her 2016 campaign, other progressive prosecutors reached out to Foxx to share their wisdom, among them Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. He was the first Black district attorney elected in Brooklyn after running on a platform of racial justice and reform. He came from Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects.

“Ken was very much like me,” Foxx said.

“As soon as I won, he called me the next day and was like, ‘Get to Brooklyn, I want to tell you everything I know,’” Foxx said. “Just the numbers alone, Cook County and Brooklyn—that’s eight million people we can affect with our policies.”

Thompson died from cancer before Foxx won the general election that November, leaving Foxx worried she would be carrying the work of reform forward alone.

But over the last few years, Foxx said, there’s been a heightened attention to the influence that district attorneys—and district attorney elections—can have in the movement to end mass incarceration. Some prominent victories for reformers have included Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017, Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby in 2018.

“There are a lot more people plugged in,” Foxx said.

Strong headwinds in the Windy City

While a shift in the way voters in Chicago and beyond think about criminal justice reform has strengthened movements against incarceration and raising investment in policing, Foxx is still up against lingering attitudes on crime. From President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, to Chicago’s police union, Foxx has had to stand up against fear-mongering narratives from people who oppose the reforms she’s pursuing.

“She’s obviously facing some pretty strong headwinds,” Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst with Chicago Appleseed said. “She’s got a police department actively working against her politically with the Fraternal Order of Police, and she’s got a very big office with very entrenched, often old school tough on crime views.”

There’s one tool she’s been able to use to to show her results: transparency.

Foxx was one of the first elected prosecutors, and is still one of only three, to provide open data access for researchers to analyze prosecutorial decision-making. But what does the data show?

A Marshall Project and Chicago Reporter analysis found that under her leadership, the state’s attorney’s office turned away more than 5,000 cases that would have been pursued by the previous state’s attorney, mostly by declining to prosecute low-level shoplifting and drug offenses and by increasing diversion to alternative treatment programs. Chicago Appleseed Fund’s research found incarceration has dropped nearly 20% while violent crimes also decreased. Still, the availability of this data couldn’t stop criticisms of bond reform coming from the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Lori Lightfoot during the more violent summer months. Foxx remains determined to pursue changes despite the resistance she has faced.

“I absolutely reject the notion that you can’t have public safety and criminal justice reform,” Foxx said. “In fact, I believe that in order to have public safety, you must have criminal justice reform.”

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....