The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has defended its decision to drop felony charges against actor Jussie Smollett by saying the decision fits with its common practice to seek out alternatives to prosecution for non-violent offenders.
A WBEZ analysis of state’s attorney data shows that for cases like Smollett’s, prosecutors under Foxx have used these deferred prosecutions about 15 percent of the time.
Smollett was charged with 16 counts of disorderly conduct for allegedly lying to police about being the victim of a hate crime. On Tuesday, prosecutors abandoned the case against Smollett in exchange for him forfeiting his $10,000 bond and doing a couple days of community service, though Smollett’s attorney has insisted there was no deal and no admission of guilt by Smollett.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx had recused herself from the case, but she defended the decision made by her deputy.
“For people who do this work every day, who recognize what the charges are … we recognize that the likelihood that someone would get a prison sentence for a Class 4 felony is slim,” Foxx said in a conversation at WBEZ on Wednesday. “If you were able to isolate out what happens with other disorderly conduct cases when the defendant is not a celebrity, [I think that would give] greater clarity.”
We did that using data from the State’s Attorney’s Office and here’s what we found.
WBEZ looked at disorderly conduct cases from 2017 and 2018, the first two full years Foxx was in office, in which the highest charge was a Class 4 felony.
Of 96 completed cases, 15 of them were dropped because of “deferred prosecution.”
There were also 20 cases in which charges were dropped, but no reason was given in the state’s attorney data, and five cases that were dismissed after the accused successfully went through the county’s mental health court.
Compare that to 50 cases in which the defendant pleaded guilty or was found guilty. Out of those cases, 11 people have been sentenced to prison time.
That means since Foxx took over, about four times as many people charged with disorderly conduct have had their cases dropped than have been sentenced to prison time.
Still, the decision to use deferred prosecution in Smollett’s case shocked many in Chicago, particularly because it came less than two weeks after Smollett was indicted.
“Having been in the criminal justice system for over 45 years, this is not a typical or a normal way to dispose of a case as serious as this one,” said Terry Ekl, a former Cook County prosecutor and a longtime defense attorney.
But Foxx said the timeline in Smollett’s case is not unusual.
“There are people who work out these types of arrangements on the very first day,” Foxx said. “I think because it's so public, because everyone saw the last court date and sees the next court date, it feels accelerated. But we have had cases, truly, where even before someone comes in, we know what the disposition is going to be.”
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.