As a Cook County, Illinois, jury last week found actor Jussie Smollett guilty of faking a racist and homophobic attack on himself, attention quickly turned to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, the prosecutor who tried to let him off easy.
Politically speaking, she’s not alone. Handily reelected last year to a second term and the first Black woman to hold the office in Cook County, Foxx is widely viewed as one of the most prominent members of a controversial movement labeled “progressive prosecutors.”
Anger and frustration over crime, policing and racial justice issues in recent years that predate the pivotal police murder of George Floyd have brought a new and often-controversial type of “progressive prosecutor” to office.
Unlike the old-school prosecutors who traditionally won office by promising tough-on-crime policies that stressed convictions and incarceration, the new reformers campaign on both public safety and reducing mass incarceration.
They tend to prefer such alternative punishments as treatment programs for drug-related crimes, reduced prosecution of low-level crimes and diversion to mental health treatment, counseling, employment, education and substance abuse programs, particularly for juveniles.
Foxx quickly became one of the most prominent figures of the movement.
Another is Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia civil rights lawyer, elected district attorney in 2017 and featured this year in the eight-part PBS documentary “Philly D.A.”
Another is Chesa Boudin, San Francisco district attorney, who learned about prison as a child visiting his parents, Weather Underground radicals Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, in prison.
“Your personal strength and commitment to reforming and improving the criminal justice system is a testament to the person you are and the role model you will continue to be for so many,” said Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a congratulatory video for his victory celebration.
But you don’t run for this controversial of an office in order to make friends.
At best, the reception for Boudin, Foxx and other progressives has been mixed, partly because of such unforeseen circumstances as the pandemic, the nationwide surge in violent crimes in recent years (not only in Chicago, folks) and a political backlash from those who see police and prosecutors relaxing their policies at a time when even liberals and communities of color have been calling for tougher law enforcement.
In San Francisco, where tourists too often have been replaced by more break-ins, car thefts, pup tents and assaults, particularly against the Asian elderly, Boudin already faces a recall election, scheduled for next June.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be ousted, as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s failed recall showed this year. But it doesn’t make his job any easier.
In Philadelphia, Krasner experienced a jolting one-man backlash from a fellow Democrat, former Mayor Michael Nutter, after making what Krasner apologetically admitted was a gaffe. Responding to reporters’ questions about rising crime in the city, Krasner said, “We don’t have a crisis of lawlessness, we don’t have a crisis of crime, we don’t have a crisis of violence.”
In a blistering open letter in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Tuesday, Nutter wrote, “It takes a certain audacity of ignorance and white privilege to say that right now.”
After citing the more than 521 people slain so far this year at that point, the most since 1960, Nutter’s letter said, “I have to wonder what kind of messed up world of white wokeness Krasner is living in to have so little regard for human lives lost, many of them Black and brown, while he advances his own national profile as a progressive district attorney.”
Ouch! Nutter’s bracing use of “white privilege” and “white wokeness” sounded to me like a backhanded reference to a long-running source of Black resentment: ill-conceived policies and practices that too often are imposed with the best of intentions on Black communities by outsiders who don’t have to live with the consequences.
That’s how I felt and still feel about “Defund the Police,” which may be the dumbest political slogan since Al Smith’s anti-prohibition button in his 1928 Democratic presidential race: “Vote for Al Smith and Make Your Wet Dreams Come True.”
In these changing times, it’s not easy to follow the Goldilocks Rule — not too hard, not too soft — but it’s necessary.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.