America’s prosecutors need to ask themselves how they can avoid doing “more harm than good” as they recognize their complicity with the systemic racism of U.S. justice, says Kim Foxx, Cook County State’s Attorney.
“We are having conversations that are long overdue,” Foxx told a webinar sponsored by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecutions at John Jay College Friday.
“As a prosecutor, I have to ask myself: What role do I play in the system, and how can I do it right and fairly? If we are truly ministers of justice, we cannot be steeped in policies that do more harm than good.
“Prosecutors have to own responsibility to transform the system. It’s not about making a broken system better. It’s about transforming it.”
Foxx was speaking at an online panel discussion on eliminating racism in the justice system and other areas of American life, in honor of the Juneteenth holiday, which marks the Civil War emancipation of slaves.
Johnny Perez of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and an advocate for ending solitary confinement, welcomed the growing awareness of Americans about the impact of lingering racism on U.S. institutions, but added, “We have to move beyond superficial change.”
Noting the efforts by some corporations to remove offensive stereotypes, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, he said. “It’s great we changed Aunt Jemima, but it’s not enough.”
John Jay College President Karol Mason noted that much of the new movement for reforming the system was now driven by a younger and more impatient generation—and adults needed to get on board.
“Young folks are no longer willing to wait for change,” Karol Mason said. “I am heartened that they are doing the work to make our system change. We are seeing laws change every day. But still– this is just the tip of the iceberg. To have systemic change, we all need to be a part of this conversation.”
According to Foxx, such a conversation could not sidestep the problem of systemic bias.
“No one is color blind,” she said. “I know there are people who don’t want to hear this, who don’t want to have to self-reflect on these issues. But we have to be aware of racism in order to be intentional about fixing this country.”
Foxx called for more protection for whistleblowers who exposed inequities and abuses in the system.
“When you see people who bring attention to something that’s not right, and are [then] ridiculed or harassed for it, it allows for this culture of silence and complacency in law enforcement,” she said.
Foxx, elected in 2016 as the first African-American woman to head the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country, is among the new group of so-called “progressive prosecutors” whose efforts to reform police behavior, sentencing guidelines and court procedures have triggered a conservative backlash spearheaded by Attorney General William Barr—who has called their efforts “demoralizing” and “dangerous.”
“I was labeled as anti-police when I voiced that I was for police accountability,” she recalled. “That became the narrative: If you say, ‘No’ against something that is not right, you’re anti-police. That’s what the culture is like.”
Mason agreed. “We need to make sure that police are equipped with reactions that are not just knee-jerk shooting. Culture change within any institution is hard. But we don’t give up. We must remain impatient for change.”
Mason, who served as a Justice Department official in the administration of former President Barack Obama, said she was frustrated by the continued pattern of incidents involving questionable police use-of-force against civilians.
“The confidence of the officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, the way he looked into the phone camera that was recording him, with his hand casually in his pocket– it made me believe that he’s done this before,” she said. “I can’t stand that confidence. We need officers to hold each other accountable.
Yale Law School Professor James Forman, whose book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, said the current calls for “defunding” police department were misleading.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘defund,’” he told the webinar. “It’s more about ‘reimagining.’ It’s about building alternative options to address specific issues and situations safely and intelligently.
“It’s about having government agencies that will actually provide safety for all communities.”
This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Sarah Rose George.