Kim Foxx | 2018 MAKERS Conference
Kim Foxx, State’s Attorney, Cook County, on criminal justice reform
- Ladies and gentlemen, Kim Foxx.
KIM FOXX: People are going to think that I say that I want people to stand when I walk in a room on purpose.
The subliminal messaging that was in that-- thank you all so very, very much.
Over the course of the last couple of days, having been here, I have to tell you that my mind was flipping in thousand different directions of the story that I wanted to tell that leads me to be in this space today to talk about my journey for criminal justice reform after listening to the women here who bared their souls-- and that I had borne my soul on the campaign trail because it matters. I ran for this office in a position in-- which is mostly men. Of elected prosecutors across the United States, less than 1% of them are women of color, less than 1%. Almost 80% of elected prosecutors are white men.
But when we look at our criminal justice system, when we look at our justice system in the city of Chicago, which is where I live and I grew up, and we look at the people who come through our jails or who have been victims of crime, they are overwhelmingly black and Latino. When we look at the young women who come through our juvenile temporary detention centers, the majority of them have been sexually abused or traumatized.
There is this notion when people hear about the fact that I come from public housing, one of the worst public housing projects in the country, that I came from the product of a single-parent household, a mother who was 18 when she had me, 17 when she had my brother, that I was sexually abused and assaulted, that I was homeless for a period of time in high school, that I went to school early in life that was under-funded and under-resourced and moved a mile to a school that had every opportunity for me to grow and thrive. And I became a lawyer, and the top lawyer.
And people ask me all the time, how did you do that? How did you make it? And they ask with such earnestness, how did you make it? And I turn the question back on all of you who may be inquiring that that question is based on the premise that I was suppose to fail. It is based on the premise that a young black girl from public housing who came from a single-parent household, a teenage mother, a victim of sexual abuse and trauma, should be in our criminal justice system, just not as its top prosecutor. And that's why I ran for this job.
I ran for this job because I am-- or I have more in common with the people who come through our criminal justice system than the people who work for me, that when we look at the factors that lead to crime and violence in our neighborhoods and we look at the issues related to concentrated poverty, when we look at the issues related to drug addiction and mental health, and I've been very vocal and very public about the fact that my mother was someone who suffered from depression all of her life, who smoked marijuana on a regular basis to quiet the voices and the stress-- then when I look at the people who come through our systems and how our criminal justice system addresses them, treats them, how we beg for humanity in our policies, it requires that everywhere I go, I tell my story because it's not because I'm exceptional. The only person who should think that is my husband.
I am not exceptional. I have been afforded an exceptional opportunity to lead this office. But when I look at what we've done in criminal justice policy, when I look at what has happened across our systems and how we would treat someone who comes from the exact same background as me and we lock them up because they have done things that all of us have done, the onus becomes on me as the prosecutor, as the chief law enforcement officer who has the power to charge, and also the power to overturn, to say that people ought not beg our systems to treat them humanely. Our systems ought be run by people who are human. And that requires us to dig deep into who we are and rationalize why we do what we do.
When I came into this office, I was the first African-American elected to this position. And there was a lot of scuttlebutt about what would happen when you have the first black person in a system where 86% of the people in our jail are black and brown or 94% of the people in our juvenile detention center are black and brown, and would she come in with the lens of someone who has lived those experience?
Absolutely. Unapologetically, I come to this work not like the 80% of those who have not had this experience. I come to this work not to pretend as though to do this work, you must be tough and you must be strong, you must pound on tables. I come to this work as a child who's experienced the systems and all of its failures and all of its possibilities.
And so that has meant for me being unapologetic about hiring a mostly female executive team. It's been unapologetic about saying we need a chief diversity officer who will make sure that our office is reflective of the communities that we serve, and not simply just in numbers related to race and ethnicity, but experience. It means that when I look at our policies as it relates to mental health that I'm actively working with partners to say that jails are not the place to deal with mental health issues.
But when I look at our issues related to drugs and addiction-- that my heart doesn't go cold when someone who we've put in a diversion program fails once, twice, or maybe seven times because I've been close enough in proximity to those who have suffered from the demons of addiction to know that they are not bad people. They are people who are dealing with public health crises.
It is someone who has worked around juvenile justice issues because I've seen as a lawyer and an advocate for children in our foster care systems that we have a school-to-prison pipeline that we all recognize, that young kids who experience trauma in their lives who've gone through our systems have a seven times higher likelihood of ending up in our adult system. And I can't wait for the gush at the end of the pipe to decide that I want to do something-- that as a prosecutor, I don't abdicate my responsibility to be a morally upright human and say that when we get things wrong, the onus is not on someone to bring it to my attention, that we immediately step forth and fix it and do everything that we can to not repeat that. And that has meant in the first year of my office doing the first-ever mass exoneration in Cook County for men who were convicted of crimes for which they did not commit.
It has meant working on issues like bail reform, an issue that women are disproportionately impacted by-- that we have people sitting in our jails every single day not because they are a threat to our community, but because they can't afford low levels amount of bond. And what people don't realize is that women tend to show up to pay that bond for men. Men tend not to show up to pay that bond for women.
And these are women who are accused, not yet convicted. This is pretrial. These are mothers who, while awaiting trial sometimes for the littlest of offenses, are not there to care for their children. These are children who are there who are unable to care for elderly parents. These are workers who are hourly-- that one day in incarceration can cause them to lose their jobs and their housing.
And that matters to me as someone who has been homeless with a mother who worked very, very hard. And the separation from her income caused devastation to our family. And then when we look and talk about bond reform-- that again, it should be prosecutors who have the power in those spaces to say that we must do better.
I've taken this job and this responsibility and these issues of justice reform at a time when the country is awakening to what's happening in our criminal justice system-- films like the "13th" that show us the history that we've adopted in this country of using incarceration to deal with our injustices. What I have to say wherever I go is that if we do not acknowledge the racist ideologies that have been embedded in our criminal justice system and not have the painful conversations about the consequences of those policies on families, then we wait 20, 30 years and look at the devastation of a war on drugs that was never about a war on drugs and what has happened to those neighborhoods and those communities and those children, if we do not have the difficult conversations about where we are rooted in race and our justice system, that we will continue to have policies that inflict harm.
And I became a prosecutor to advocate on behalf of communities. As a girl who suffered the horrors of victimization, there was no job more honorable to me than to hold the hand of a victim and tell them that I've been there, too, and you'll be OK, too. But we cannot do that with integrity and honor if we do not acknowledge that that is wrong in our systems and be the warriors that fight for it.
So I leave here today saying to all of you that as you go back into your communities and you look at your criminal justice system and you ask who's there and you ask who's your top prosecutor and you ask do they share the same values and beliefs in humanity and the potential and possibility in everyone that they serve, never in a million years could anyone have imagined that a poor black girl from Cabrini-Green would stand on the cusp of history as the first African-American woman Cook County State's Attorney. But if we did not invest in me, I wouldn't be here today. Let's make that investment for all of our children. Thank you.