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Foxx's Efforts For Judicial Change Overshadowed By Celebrity Case


One of the people still on the ballot today, as voting goes ahead in Illinois, is Kim Foxx. She's one of the country's most powerful lawyers, the state's attorney for Cook County, which includes Chicago. She manages the second-largest prosecutor's office in the U.S. Since her election more than three years ago, she has tried to reform the way cases are prosecuted, and that has led to both praise and criticism. Today voters decide if she'll stay in office. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Kim Foxx was elected in 2016, when there was political turmoil in Chicago over a fatal police shooting. She promised to restore trust in the criminal justice system. And one of the first things she did was to take a second look at questionable convictions, just like the ones overturned for several men last month by a judge. They had been framed in drug cases by a corrupt Chicago police sergeant and his crew.


KIM FOXX: I have, as I have done before, apologized to these men for the system that has failed them and taken from them their time, their dignity, their connections to their families and to their resources.

CORLEY: Joshua Tepfer is an attorney with the University of Chicago Law School's Exoneration Project. He says the courts have overturned nearly 100 convictions, including the ones tied to the corrupt sergeant. He says the joint investigation work between his and the state's attorney's office is rare.

JOSHUA TEPFER: I don't know of too many other instances where a defense attorney and a prosecutor's office have worked to reinvestigate sort of in tandem in this way.

CORLEY: Foxx often talks about where she's from and how it shapes her push for criminal justice reform. She grew up in Chicago public housing, at one point was homeless, knew both victims of gun violence and the shooters. One of her many reforms is to no longer charge shoplifters with a felony if they take less than $1,000. A higher priority, she says, is prosecuting violent crime and gun crimes. She told supporters recently, her approach has become a model for the nation.


FOXX: And then what happened is somebody got elected like me in Philadelphia and then in Boston and then in Orlando and now in San Francisco. And what's happening is is that they're saying, oh, this works.


CORLEY: And while Foxx says the reforms she's put in place are what voters elected her to do, there's been pushback. Store owners, police and political opponents argue her shoplifting policy emboldens thieves. Political analyst Laura Washington, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, says Foxx supporters believe that's criticism that's often aimed at prosecutors like Foxx who are changing who and how they prosecute.

LAURA WASHINGTON: She's one of a handful of African American women who are working on these issues across the country. And many of her supporters feel that there's maybe some racial division behind that pushback. People think that she is being soft on crime - that she's coddling criminals and that that's not the role of a prosecutor.

CORLEY: The debate over policy and practice in the state's attorney's office erupted over the Jussie Smollett case. He's the TV actor who Chicago Police said filed a false police report. He claimed last year that he was the victim of a homophobic and racist attack. He faced 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct; all were dropped. That caused a firestorm of criticism and questions about whether Foxx, who had recused herself, actually had a hand in the case behind the scenes. Smollett now faces new charges, and a special prosecutor is investigating how Foxx's office handled the case.


UNIDENTIFIED CHICAGO POLICE: (Chanting) Foxx must go. Foxx must go. Foxx must go.

CORLEY: Last spring, in a chaotic jumble of counterprotests, Chicago cops, chanting Foxx must go, rallied outside of her downtown office. Kevin Graham, the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the prosecutor's office is no longer a force.


KEVIN GRAHAM: We really need to have people in the prosecutor's office following through with charges that our detectives and our police officers work hard to bring to a court case.

CORLEY: And Foxx's Democratic primary challengers, Bill Conway, Donna Moore and Bob Fioretti, work to make sure the Smollett case stays front and center, like in a feisty forum held on public television WTTW.

BILL CONWAY: You can't have criminal justice reform when the politically connected get one deal and other people get another.

DONNA MOORE: This case was indicted. Three weeks later, it's dropped. And we never heard from Kim Foxx about why the case was dropped.

BOB FIORETTI: She's lied to the public about what she did.

CORLEY: At a Foxx campaign event, supporter Sonia Zuniga (ph) was among many who said the Jussie Smollett case just doesn't matter.

SONIA ZUNIGA: I think we need to let that go already. We have more important things out there, like children getting killed in the street.

CORLEY: For her part, Kim Foxx says she owns what happened in the Smollett case and knows she has to answer to the public. That answer comes during today's election.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLD PANDA'S "IN MY CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.