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

Chicago Sun-Times - - POLITICS - BY MICK DUMKE Staff Reporter

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.”

Anita Al­varez

Kim Foxx

Donna More


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.

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