Shoplifting Charges Drop 74% in 3 Years
Under the Country's First "Progressive Prosecutors"
Chicago's Controversial Top Prosecutor Up for Re-Election
'Kim Foxx Aims To Rewrite An ‘Inequitable’ Legal
Justice System As Challengers Fight To Topple Her'
years after Foxx, the county’s first Black female prosecutor, decisively
defeated incumbent Anita Alvarez to be one of the country’s first
“progressive prosecutors,” it may still be hard to believe, sometimes, that
historically punitive Cook County has an elected state’s attorney willing to
call out the failures of the system.
With one term under her belt, Foxx says her
work isn’t finished: she has more to do to reshape the system and address
longstanding inequities. But she faces three opponents who have vociferously
criticized her record. They argue that although reform still needs to
happen, she’s not fit to do it, and that some of her attempts to transform
the system have gone too far
The dynamics of the race exemplify how
pursuing criminal justice reform from the prosecutor’s office can produce
intense backlash. Foxx is one of the first progressive prosecutors to
face re-election, and the outcome is likely to offer lessons for the movement as
Hodge, director of the Reshaping Prosecution program at the Vera Institute of
Justice. “We have more than 2,300 prosecutor’s offices across this country.
We’re approaching 50 who’ve been elected on a reform platform. So this is
just the beginning. And we need people like her to be able to stay in this
role so that this movement can have momentum.”
On a macro level, Foxx’s new approach to the office has had a significant effect
on the scope of prosecutions in Cook County. An October 2019 analysis by the
Marshall Project estimated that under Foxx, the state’s attorney’s office had
declined to prosecute roughly 5,000 cases that would have been pursued by her
predecessor. A little over half of those—2,800—come from her office declining to
pursue charges during the “felony review” process, when prosecutors review
information from the police and decide whether to file a charge.
Foxx’s office sentenced 34 percent fewer people to incarceration per month in
2019 than Alvarez’s office in 2012.
But some of the policies responsible for driving down incarceration rates—such
as bail reform and her decision to lower the threshold for felony retail
theft—have been among her most controversial.
The candidates have some major points of disagreement on policy. One of those is
Foxx’s approach to retail theft. Illinois
state law holds that in shoplifting cases, thefts of under $300 worth of
merchandise are a misdemeanor, but anything over $300 can be charged as a
felony. That’s much lower than the threshold for felony charges in many other
states: in Texas, for example, it’s $2,500, and in Indiana, it’s $750. When she
assumed office in late 2016, Foxx found that the most common type of case
referred for charges through felony review were retail theft cases. (In
2016, Alvarez’s office approved 2,866 retail theft cases for felony charges; in
it was 3,174.) As her first policy, Foxx announced that her office would
raise the threshold for felony charges to $1,000 worth of stolen material.
Anything less would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. She framed this move as an
intentional effort to divert resources from prosecuting nonviolent shoplifters
to addressing gun violence, and as a way to prevent relatively low-level
shoplifters from being saddled with felony convictions that can lead to
incarceration and affect future job and housing prospects. It’s a significant
contributor to the decline in charges under her administration: In 2017,
felony review approved charges in just 824 retail theft cases. When she
described this policy at the youth summit, Foxx was met with a chorus of snaps
and whoops from around the room.
Other audiences, though, have been less supportive. The Illinois Retail
Merchants Association has been opposed to the change from the beginning. And
the Chicago Loop Alliance, which represents retailers downtown,
blames the policy
for recent brazen shoplifting incidents. Conway indicated in an
interview with the Chicago Sun-Times’s Fran Spielman that he would return to
prosecuting organized retail theft as a felony even if the stolen merchandise is
below $1,000, though he would not use felony charges for lower-level individual
shoplifting. More says that she would return to analyzing whether to prosecute
retail charges as felonies on a case-by-case basis. She’s not worried that this
would waste resources that could be devoted to prosecuting violent crime. “A
retail theft just doesn’t take that long to work up,” she said, and cleaning up
corruption elsewhere in the office would free up resources.
Chicago’s political powers and Labor have mostly lined up behind Foxx’s bid for
re-election. Foxx’s strong relationship with the local Democratic Party has
obvious advantages for her campaign: An incumbent with the party’s backing
hasn’t lost a state’s attorney primary in decades (Alvarez, notably, didn’t get
the endorsement in 2015), and party support helps bring in money.