Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told county commissioners on Tuesday that her office is looking to expand its conviction integrity unit in anticipation that county attorneys will start handling more conviction challenges based on allegations of torture by former Chicago police Commander Jon Burge.
For more than a dozen years, wrongful conviction claims from alleged victims of Burge, who oversaw torture by Chicago detectives, have been handled by a special prosecutor because of concerns of a conflict of interest within the state’s attorney’s office which prosecuted the cases investigated by Burge.
But this year, a Cook County judge ruled that because Foxx did not work as a prosecutor when Burge was with the Chicago Police Department, she does not have the same potential conflict.
Ditching the special prosecutor and having the state’s attorney handle Burge cases has been a major cause for some activists who believe the private attorneys hired by the county are incentivized to drag out cases to keep getting money from taxpayers.
But Foxx said she was “quite surprised” when the judge decided her office would handle at least some of the cases involving Burge, and she didn’t know how many cases would ultimately fall to her office.
“He has opened the door that our office will be in fact having to re-review the Burge cases,” Foxx said. “The issue is that these cases are quite old … and so they will take a significant amount of time and resources to go through.”
Foxx addressed the Cook County Board of Commissioners Tuesday at an annual budget hearing. The proposed FY2020 budget for the prosecutor’s office calls for adding 10 new positions to the unit that handles wrongful conviction claims, like the ones tied to Burge.
The budget, if approved, would also add to the state’s attorney’s gun crimes strategy unit, which has specially-trained prosecutors who work out of police stations on gun crime prosecutions. Foxx credited the program with a drop in shootings and said she is looking to expand the program to Cook County’s south suburbs.
Foxx said most of the gun violence conversation is focused on Chicago, but the south suburbs have their own serious problem with shootings and homicides.
In total, the budget calls for about 22 new positions in the prosecutor’s office, including new positions to help with expungements based on the new Illinois law legalizing marijuana.
Foxx estimated there could be more than 550,000 criminal records eligible for expungement in Cook County under the new marijuana law.
The past year has been bumpy for Foxx politically. She took heat for her office’s handling of the Jussie Smollett false police-report case, and continues to face criticism for reducing the number of people her office prosecutes for retail theft.
Foxx was not asked about the Smollett case at Tuesday’s hearing, but she was questioned on how her office handles retail theft cases. Foxx talked through her priorities and rationale with the commissioners, but she also pointed to her office’s data showing that while criminal prosecutions like retail theft have gone down, gun prosecutions have gone up.
She also alluded to some of the controversies surrounding her in her closing remarks to the board, saying her staff does a “tremendous, tremendous job” for the people of Cook County.
“In spite of headlines and news related to their boss, they show up everyday … paid very little money to do so, though we thank you for the money you give us, but they do this for the love of the people of Cook County,” Foxx said.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.