We sent questionnaires to each of the candidates running for Cook County State’s Attorney in the upcoming primary, asking each to share their positions on crucial civil liberties issues. Read their responses before you vote on March 17, 2020(or earlier if you early vote!) Click here to skip ahead to their answers.
You can also watch the full video from our Cook County State's Attorney Forum held on February 29, 2020 by clicking here.
A State’s Attorney is the chief legal prosecutor for each county in Illinois. State’s Attorneys are among the most powerful people in the criminal legal system. They make key decisions in criminal cases about who gets charged, what charges are filed against an individual and what punishments a defendant faces.
The position of the Cook County State’s Attorney has a significant impact on a number of civil liberties issues, including reducing jail and prison populations, addressing racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and increasing police accountability in Cook County. As elected officials, they can also increase transparency by publicly sharing information about how their office operates.
As the most populous county in Illinois, the decisions made by the county’s chief legal prosecutor directly affects the more than 3 million people that live in the County, as well as impact our state prison population.
CHRISTOPHER E. K. PFANNKUCHE
REDUCING ILLINOIS JAIL AND PRISON POPULATION
Illinois has a problem with mass incarceration. Among other indicators, our state prison system was designed to house approximately 32,000 individuals, but currently houses nearly 40,000 people - many of whom are serving long sentences. Each year, more people enter our prisons.
Do you believe that Cook County and the State of Illinois should reduce their current incarceration rates? If yes, please describe what specific policies you will pursue if elected to reduce the number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails.
The Cook County State's Attorney's office has been criticized in the past for overcharging defendants in order to pressure them to accept guilty pleas instead of going to trial.
Will you commit to only charging crimes that the evidence clearly supports (i.e., not overcharging). If yes, please share what steps, if any, you would take to ensure that cases are appropriately charged?
In Cook County, all drug cases are directly filed by police officers without any oversight or review of the charges by the State's Attorney's office.
If you are elected, will you end the practice of allowing the police to directly file charges, and require all charges to be reviewed by a prosecutor before filing?
Although people charged with crimes are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty, many spend months and even years incarcerated pretrial simply because they cannot afford to pay a monetary bond.
Do you support ending the courts' reliance upon cash bail to determine whether a defendant should be jailed while they await trial, and instead utilizing an individualized showing of substantial flight risk or danger to other persons?
ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION: SUBSTANCE ABUSE AND MENTAL HEALTH
People often wind up in the criminal legal system because they are struggling with substance use disorders and mental health issues.
Is it appropriate for prosecutors, police, and the courts to play a role in helping people with substance use disorders and mental health issues access evidence-based care provided by qualified health care professionals?
CONDITIONS OF RELEASE AND PROBATION
Conditions of release often include prohibitions that are difficult to avoid, such as curfew violations or associating with groups of people from shared communities.
Would you encourage police departments in Cook County to limit arrests for violations of release conditions that do not harm or pose a risk of harm to others?
ADDRESSING RACIAL DISPARITIES
Racial disparities traditionally mark our criminal legal system. People of color are overrepresented in contacts with the police (traffic and pedestrian stops), prosecutions and incarceration.
Do you believe that the State's Attorney's Office has a duty to reduce racial disparities in the criminal legal system?
Will you commit to tracking and working to eliminate racial disparities in decisions made by the State's Attorney's office, such as disparities in charging decisions, bail recommendations, plea bargains, and sentencing recommendations? If you answered yes, please include any specific policies and practices you will implement to reduce racial disparities.
CRIMINALIZATION OF POVERTY
Low-income people are regularly directed into the criminal legal system and face barriers to getting out due to their limited financial circumstances. A combination of high fines and fees for minor traffic tickets, civil offenses, and even misdemeanor crimes result in jail time and punitive collection practices for those unable to pay.
Do you agree that high fines, fees and financial assessments in the criminal and traffic court system have contributed to the "criminalization of poverty" where poor people face harsher outcomes for the same conduct as others due to their poverty? If you answered yes, please describe the specific actions you will take as State's Attorney to mitigate the harm that fines, fees, and other financial assessments imposed by criminal and traffic courts inflict upon people living in poverty.
In recent years, public attention has focused on the need to enhance police accountability tothe public. Residents from all neighborhoods across Cook County want policing that reflects the needs and values of their community and respects all residents.
Would you ask the Attorney General to appoint an independent prosecutor in all officer-involved shootings?
What standards would your office use to determine when to prosecute a police officer who engages in misconduct?
The Supreme Court has ruled that criminal defendants should receive all relevant information that may impact the credibility of a witness. A recent DOJ investigation of the Chicago Police Department found that there is currently no system to ensure that information about CPD officers - such as disciplinary actions or evidence of having provided false reports in the past - is disclosed to the State's Attorney's Office and criminal defendants as required.
Would you take affirmative steps to investigate the credibility of CPD officers when considering them as witnesses for prosecutions? If you answered yes, please describe what systems will you put in place to ensure that the State's Attorney's Office is consistently providing defendants with this constitutionally mandated information?
Cook County proudly proclaims itself to be a welcoming community for immigrants and asylum seekers. Interactions with the criminal legal system can adversely impact an individual's immigration status.
Do you think prosecutors should consider the immigration-related consequences of prosecutorial decisions at all stages of a case and reach immigration-safe dispositions for noncitizens whenever possible? If yes, please explain what steps you will take to minimize the collateral immigration consequences to non-citizens in the criminal legal system?
Transparency in public office is critical to build trust and confidence between residents and their government. Given the crucial role of the States Attorney's Office, providing the public with a clear understanding of how government authority is used takes on heightened importance.
Would transparency be an important value for your office?
Will you commit to publicly posting statistical information on charging decisions, convictions, plea bargains, declinations, diversion program placements, and sentences -disaggregated by race and gender?
If the State's Attorney's office is not already collecting the data mentioned above, will you pledge to create a plan for collecting and publicizing that data?
CIVIL LIBERTIES POLICY LIGHTNING ROUND