State’s attorney candidates Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III
In the hotly contested Democratic primary to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, two Democrats are running: former state appellate judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and university lecturer Clayton Harris III. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
State’s attorney candidates Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III
In the hotly contested Democratic primary to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, two Democrats are running: former state appellate judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and university lecturer Clayton Harris III. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Hardly three weeks remain before balloting ends in a hotly contested Democratic primary to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who is not seeking a third term. The winner of the March 19 primary is expected to have a huge advantage in November’s general election.

Two Democrats are running: former state appellate judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and university lecturer Clayton Harris III. Neither is widely known to voters.

So, WBEZ nailed them down on five pressing policy questions. Our instructions to them were simple: Begin each answer with “yes” or “no” and, then, feel free to explain or add nuance. We have lightly edited the answers for typos, grammar, style consistency and length.

Pretrial detention for illegal gun possession

Under an Illinois law that eliminated cash bail last September, prosecutors must file a petition for a defendant to be jailed ahead of trial. The petition must show the person is a danger to public safety or a flight risk. A judge makes the final call on who is jailed and who is released while awaiting trial.

WBEZ: Will your office seek pretrial detention when the top charge is illegal gun possession and there are no aggravating factors or prior gun convictions?

Harris: No. But we will seek pretrial detention if an illegal gun is used in the commission of a crime or other act of violence — or if the individual has a record of violent behavior. I will request detention in accordance with the law when it comes to violent offenses and particularly in the cases of defendants accused of domestic violence.

O’Neill Burke: (Did not answer “yes” or “no.”) It is important to explore alternatives to pretrial detention for nonviolent, first-time offenders, including youths who find themselves in possession of firearms due to influences from gangs and negative individuals in their surroundings. Instead, the emphasis should be on addressing the underlying factors contributing to their circumstances and offering opportunities for rehabilitation and community assistance. However, we must acknowledge that Cook County is experiencing not just an enormous increase in gun possession but an exponential increase in guns with switches converting them to automatic weapons. … If someone is found with one, we will be seeking detention and jail time.

Unionization of frontline prosecutors

An Illinois bill last year would have codified the nonmanagerial status of assistant state’s attorneys, eliminating a potential hurdle to collective bargaining over their wages, benefits and work conditions.

WBEZ: Would you support legislation allowing unionization of frontline assistant state’s attorneys?

Harris: Yes. I plan to remain neutral toward any such unionization efforts. I respect the rights of all employees to freely and fairly choose whether or not they wish to form a union and will not interfere with any attempts to do so. I also plan to establish regular communication channels with staff to address concerns and improve working conditions. I will be advocating for competitive salaries, benefits and opportunities for professional development within the office.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. I’m the daughter of a union member, and I would not be where I am today but for my father’s union benefits. Although I am not directly involved in the legislative process regarding unionization, I would fully support an organizing effort and work with any unions in the State’s Attorney’s Office on their collective bargaining agreement to negotiate fair benefits, wages and working conditions.

Prosecution of cop defendants

Police accountability advocates have long claimed that, when a police officer commits a crime, prosecutors face conflicts of interest because they routinely need cops to serve as witnesses and gather evidence in other criminal cases.

WBEZ: Would you outsource to private law firms the prosecution of police-officer defendants?

Harris: No. I would prefer to prosecute these defendants from within our office wherever possible to ensure prosecutorial quality and to prevent high costs to taxpayers associated with outside firms. I have been clear that I will prosecute police officers who abuse their power, perpetrate violence and violate people’s rights. … I want to make sure good officers have the tools they need to make sure bad officers are held accountable. So we’re going to stand up an anonymous tip line specifically for officers to flag other officers. We’ll take that seriously.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. I am committed to transferring the prosecution of police officer defendants to a special prosecutions unit, separate from the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Attorneys for kids during interrogations

An Illinois bill backed by Gov. JB Pritzker would require a lawyer for everyone under 18 during a police interrogation about any crime and would bar kids from waiving their right to counsel.

WBEZ: Do you support the Illinois counsel-for-juveniles bill (SB3321) as filed?

Harris: Yes. I support just and ethical interrogation practices. I support Illinois law prohibiting deceptive interrogation practices for youth, and I support proposed legislation requiring minors to have adequate representation during police interrogations. … I also want to work with legislators and stakeholders to strengthen and expand protections for juvenile rights, including advocating for additional reforms beyond the scope of the current bill.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. Ensuring the protection of youths from harsh or unlawful interrogation is crucial for upholding their rights and guaranteeing equitable treatment within the legal framework. The establishment of rigorous protocols and oversight mechanisms helps shield minors from coercive methods and psychological distress during questioning. By requiring legal representation, we add another layer of protection, promoting a safe and legal interrogation procedure.

Shoplifting by first-time offenders

Shortly after taking office in 2016, Foxx raised the bar for charging a shoplifter with a felony. Her office instructed prosecutors to charge retail theft as a misdemeanor unless the value of the stolen goods exceeded $1,000 or the defendant had 10 prior felony convictions. The previous threshold, $300, was set by Illinois law.

WBEZ: Will your office prosecute, as a felony, a retail theft between $300 and $1,000 by a first-time shoplifting offender?

Harris: No. But my office will prosecute retail theft in every instance. … Under my administration, retail thefts under [the $1,000] threshold will still be prosecuted at other levels. Where appropriate, we will also bring related felony charges, regardless of the threshold. If an individual is accused of theft with a gun, for example, we will pursue armed robbery charges, which are felonies. My office will review matters on a case-by-case basis for appropriate charges.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. I will enforce the retail theft statute in accordance with current Illinois law. The felony retail theft statute states that the value of the goods for a felony is $300 or more. … I took an oath as a judge, and I will take the same oath as the state’s attorney, that I will uphold the law. If there is public sentiment to change the law, the appropriate avenue to do so is to go to the Legislature and change it. That doesn’t mean that everyone arrested for shoplifting is facing jail time. … If someone has no background, they could be sentenced to theft school; if they don’t get arrested again and complete the class, the case does not go on their record. If necessary, we can graduate the penalty upward based on the offender’s background — from supervision to probation to jail time. It’s also important to look at the facts of each case. For instance, if someone steals $750 worth of goods and uses a gun or assaults someone, that’s not simply retail theft, and we would prosecute it accordingly.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

State’s attorney candidates Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III
In the hotly contested Democratic primary to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, two Democrats are running: former state appellate judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and university lecturer Clayton Harris III. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
State’s attorney candidates Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III
In the hotly contested Democratic primary to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, two Democrats are running: former state appellate judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and university lecturer Clayton Harris III. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Hardly three weeks remain before balloting ends in a hotly contested Democratic primary to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who is not seeking a third term. The winner of the March 19 primary is expected to have a huge advantage in November’s general election.

Two Democrats are running: former state appellate judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and university lecturer Clayton Harris III. Neither is widely known to voters.

So, WBEZ nailed them down on five pressing policy questions. Our instructions to them were simple: Begin each answer with “yes” or “no” and, then, feel free to explain or add nuance. We have lightly edited the answers for typos, grammar, style consistency and length.

Pretrial detention for illegal gun possession

Under an Illinois law that eliminated cash bail last September, prosecutors must file a petition for a defendant to be jailed ahead of trial. The petition must show the person is a danger to public safety or a flight risk. A judge makes the final call on who is jailed and who is released while awaiting trial.

WBEZ: Will your office seek pretrial detention when the top charge is illegal gun possession and there are no aggravating factors or prior gun convictions?

Harris: No. But we will seek pretrial detention if an illegal gun is used in the commission of a crime or other act of violence — or if the individual has a record of violent behavior. I will request detention in accordance with the law when it comes to violent offenses and particularly in the cases of defendants accused of domestic violence.

O’Neill Burke: (Did not answer “yes” or “no.”) It is important to explore alternatives to pretrial detention for nonviolent, first-time offenders, including youths who find themselves in possession of firearms due to influences from gangs and negative individuals in their surroundings. Instead, the emphasis should be on addressing the underlying factors contributing to their circumstances and offering opportunities for rehabilitation and community assistance. However, we must acknowledge that Cook County is experiencing not just an enormous increase in gun possession but an exponential increase in guns with switches converting them to automatic weapons. … If someone is found with one, we will be seeking detention and jail time.

Unionization of frontline prosecutors

An Illinois bill last year would have codified the nonmanagerial status of assistant state’s attorneys, eliminating a potential hurdle to collective bargaining over their wages, benefits and work conditions.

WBEZ: Would you support legislation allowing unionization of frontline assistant state’s attorneys?

Harris: Yes. I plan to remain neutral toward any such unionization efforts. I respect the rights of all employees to freely and fairly choose whether or not they wish to form a union and will not interfere with any attempts to do so. I also plan to establish regular communication channels with staff to address concerns and improve working conditions. I will be advocating for competitive salaries, benefits and opportunities for professional development within the office.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. I’m the daughter of a union member, and I would not be where I am today but for my father’s union benefits. Although I am not directly involved in the legislative process regarding unionization, I would fully support an organizing effort and work with any unions in the State’s Attorney’s Office on their collective bargaining agreement to negotiate fair benefits, wages and working conditions.

Prosecution of cop defendants

Police accountability advocates have long claimed that, when a police officer commits a crime, prosecutors face conflicts of interest because they routinely need cops to serve as witnesses and gather evidence in other criminal cases.

WBEZ: Would you outsource to private law firms the prosecution of police-officer defendants?

Harris: No. I would prefer to prosecute these defendants from within our office wherever possible to ensure prosecutorial quality and to prevent high costs to taxpayers associated with outside firms. I have been clear that I will prosecute police officers who abuse their power, perpetrate violence and violate people’s rights. … I want to make sure good officers have the tools they need to make sure bad officers are held accountable. So we’re going to stand up an anonymous tip line specifically for officers to flag other officers. We’ll take that seriously.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. I am committed to transferring the prosecution of police officer defendants to a special prosecutions unit, separate from the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Attorneys for kids during interrogations

An Illinois bill backed by Gov. JB Pritzker would require a lawyer for everyone under 18 during a police interrogation about any crime and would bar kids from waiving their right to counsel.

WBEZ: Do you support the Illinois counsel-for-juveniles bill (SB3321) as filed?

Harris: Yes. I support just and ethical interrogation practices. I support Illinois law prohibiting deceptive interrogation practices for youth, and I support proposed legislation requiring minors to have adequate representation during police interrogations. … I also want to work with legislators and stakeholders to strengthen and expand protections for juvenile rights, including advocating for additional reforms beyond the scope of the current bill.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. Ensuring the protection of youths from harsh or unlawful interrogation is crucial for upholding their rights and guaranteeing equitable treatment within the legal framework. The establishment of rigorous protocols and oversight mechanisms helps shield minors from coercive methods and psychological distress during questioning. By requiring legal representation, we add another layer of protection, promoting a safe and legal interrogation procedure.

Shoplifting by first-time offenders

Shortly after taking office in 2016, Foxx raised the bar for charging a shoplifter with a felony. Her office instructed prosecutors to charge retail theft as a misdemeanor unless the value of the stolen goods exceeded $1,000 or the defendant had 10 prior felony convictions. The previous threshold, $300, was set by Illinois law.

WBEZ: Will your office prosecute, as a felony, a retail theft between $300 and $1,000 by a first-time shoplifting offender?

Harris: No. But my office will prosecute retail theft in every instance. … Under my administration, retail thefts under [the $1,000] threshold will still be prosecuted at other levels. Where appropriate, we will also bring related felony charges, regardless of the threshold. If an individual is accused of theft with a gun, for example, we will pursue armed robbery charges, which are felonies. My office will review matters on a case-by-case basis for appropriate charges.

O’Neill Burke: Yes. I will enforce the retail theft statute in accordance with current Illinois law. The felony retail theft statute states that the value of the goods for a felony is $300 or more. … I took an oath as a judge, and I will take the same oath as the state’s attorney, that I will uphold the law. If there is public sentiment to change the law, the appropriate avenue to do so is to go to the Legislature and change it. That doesn’t mean that everyone arrested for shoplifting is facing jail time. … If someone has no background, they could be sentenced to theft school; if they don’t get arrested again and complete the class, the case does not go on their record. If necessary, we can graduate the penalty upward based on the offender’s background — from supervision to probation to jail time. It’s also important to look at the facts of each case. For instance, if someone steals $750 worth of goods and uses a gun or assaults someone, that’s not simply retail theft, and we would prosecute it accordingly.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.