EXPERIENCE A PLUS OR MINUS?
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez says we need her know-how more than ever, but challengers Kim Foxx and Donna More say change is needed now that the incumbent has lost the public’s trust
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. But her challengers — former prosecutors Kim Foxx and Donna More — argue 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 said.
“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,” said More.
Alvarez charges that her foes lack integrity and don’t know what they’re talking about.
“Unfortunately, they have both tried to make this race about one thing,” Alvarez said. “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 highprofile 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 bring murder charges— and that was just hours before the video was released publicly under 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 said. Cases involving police shootings are “extremely complex,” she said, because cops are authorized to use force. And in this case, federal authorities were also investigating.
“I stand by what we did,” she said. “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. Her foes 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 said.
Foxx said she’d seek the appointment of a special prosecutor for all police-shooting cases to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest between the state’s attorney’s office and the police department.
More maintains the county can’t afford special prosecutors for every such case. Instead, she said she’d create a special unit of the state’s attorney’s office that doesn’t collaborate with 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 said.
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.
“We stand up for victims of crime,” she said.
Alvarez notes that she has prosecuted thousands of violent criminals since she joined 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 advocated for tougher gun laws. The minimum sentence for illegal gun possession is a year, but she notes that many offenders only serve months if they’re given time at all. She continues to call for longer man- datory minimums.
Yet the idea has been blocked in Springfield by legislators wary of incarcerating more gun possessors, most of them black and Hispanic men, while traffickers are rarely prosecuted.
“You need to go after the top of the food chain,” said More, a partner at the Fox Rothschild law firm who previously worked in the state’s attorney’s office and U.S. attorney’s office. She would like to see the creation of a central gun court, which she says would allow prosecutors and judges to identify bigger players in the illegal gun trade, including importers and sellers.
Foxx said the state’s attorney’s office should crack down on gun traffickers and straw purchases by working more closely with other law enforcement agencies. The office also needs stronger ties to communities hit hardest by gun violence.
“A lot of people are afraid because they don’t believe authorities will protect them,” Foxx said.
Alvarez concedes that during the three decades she’s been a prosecutor, views of justice have evolved — and that includes her own. She says she’s been a leader in making the office “smart on crime” instead of merely tough on it.
“I can talk for hours about all the changes I’ve made,” she said, 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 access social services.
But Foxx says Alvarez fought reforms for the bail-bond system, juvenile offenders and drug crimes that were pushed by officials including 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 said.
For example, the state’s attorney’s office continues to prosecute every felony drug arrest by police, even those involving possession of trace amounts. Judges routinely throw out thousands of such cases a year, but offenders often sit in jail for days or weeks first.
Alvarez says there are too many felony drug cases to conduct reviews of each one. But 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 policies in the office, the candidates have spent even more time questioning each other’s integrity.
Alvarez noted that More served as a regulator on the Illinois Gaming Board before representing gaming firms as an attorney in private practice.
“There’s no conflict in what I did,” More responded. “I made sure my clients adhered to the rules.”
More countered that Alvarez accepted 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 said. She in turn called out Foxx for accepting donations from county contractors and failing to disclose a 2015 poll conducted for her by Preckwinkle. The Foxx campaign was fined for the oversight by the state election board.
Foxx, for her part, criticized Alvarez for accepting donations from her employees and took 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 said. “Our issues have been so dire around our criminal justice system for so long, and this is a distraction.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez (center) and her opponents in the March 15 Democratic primary election, Kim Foxx (left) and Donna More, debate before the Chicago SunTimes Editorial Board in February.