What Clayton Harris Would Mean for Chicago

December 21, 2023

Lawlessness will continue under Clayton Harris

When Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announced she would not seek re-election as county prosecutor at an address to the City Club of Chicago in April, the news was met across Chicago with a collective sigh of relief.

From the moment she entered office in December 2016, Foxx’s tenure has been marked by controversy, serial missteps, and harmful policy decisions. A progressive ideologue, Foxx immediately undertook reforms encompassing the rejection of the prosecution of a range of offenses, disbanding the narcotics bureau, welcoming the end of cash bail, and incarceration as the last possible option.

A détente with Chicago’s criminal underclass, Foxx embraced the idea of redemption for violent offenders and ignored consistent warnings her lenient policies would set off disorder and create a permanent class of dangerous repeat offenders. As her failures stacked up, Chicago slid into violence and disarray, and crime across several categories soared. Though homicides fell from 685 in her first year in office in 2017 to 521 in 2019, homicides flared up to 798 in 2020. One year later, Chicago tallied a nightmarish 856 homicides, the highest number seen in the Windy City in 25 years.

Though her reforms manifestly failed, Foxx still stubbornly refused to acknowledge the obvious. A woman clinically obsessed with episodes of the past, in what was likely her greatest piece of roguery, Foxx used the power of her office to release convicted killers from behind bars. An arrogant overreach, Foxx’s peculiar attachment to a bygone era only demonstrated the force driving her reform measures was revenge rather than justice.

Nevertheless, as Foxx prepares to exit the stage in December of 2024, the field to replace her is expanding. For those who fear the damage Foxx wrought on Chicago could be reversed, brace yourselves. Among the Democratic candidates, two names have emerged: Retired Cook County Judicial Circuit Judge Eileen O'Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III, a lecturer at University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. On the opposite side of the political divide, former 2nd Ward alderman Bob Fioretti has announced his candidacy and is the lone declared GOP candidate.

Despite the enormity of the task, it is plausible to believe O'Neill Burke or Fioretti, if elected, could orchestrate the sort of necessary course correction of which the State’s Attorney’s office is in dire need. However, there is every reason to believe Harris will succeed Foxx. A former assistant in Dick Devine’s State’s Attorney’s office, Harris’ resume includes experience serving former Mayor Richard Daley, representing Daley in Springfield and as Counsel with the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Following his service with Chicago, Harris worked in a string of administrative positions with the State of Illinois. Outside of his government service, Harris has twice served as a corporate lobbyist with ride hailing firm, Lyft, and Colorado-based CH2M. Since 2009, Harris has also taught a course on Policing Race in America: Black, White & Blue through the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.      

Though Mr. Harris has affected a bow tie to give him a professorial image, this is but a makeover to portray him as academically brilliant and determined to administer justice with dispassion. The rebranding of Harris serves one purpose: To disguise his radicalism.

That Harris is the favorite to replace the bumbling Foxx is in large part due to the backing of Toni Preckwinkle. To understand Ms. Preckwinkle’s vision for Chicago, one must understand the board president is committed to ploughing on with criminal justice reforms. To Preckwinkle, criminal justice reform only blossomed under Foxx. With her vision for reform incomplete, Preckwinkle will commit herself to propelling Harris into the CCSAO with a ruthless determination.

Sending Clayton Harris to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office would not be a Kim Foxx “third term.” Harris as Cook County’s chief prosecutor would be far worse. Though crime in Chicago should be treated with a sense of urgency, a reasonable hypothesis over how Harris would manage the CCSAO begins with his anti-law enforcement disposition. A lecturer on race and policing, it is fair to speculate Harris will drag distorted views on policing into office. On record as supporting the SAFE-T Act and declaring the contentious Pretrial Fairness Act “ensures we are safer,” Chicago can expect Harris to leverage bail reform, which bars pretrial detention for defendants facing a raft of felony and misdemeanor offenses.

Although Cook County suffers from overly charitable judges, the mishmash of pusillanimous jurists and no-cash bail will result in an upward trajectory of recidivism rates among pretrial defendants.

Under Harris, Chicago is also likely to see the CCSAO persist with Foxx’s deeply misguided policy on charges for retail theft. A position consistent with the progressive view petty theft is a mere annoyance or the “criminalization of poverty,” its non-prosecution led to an epidemic of brazen retail theft gangs. The refusal to prosecute has also led to business owners charging higher prices. While critics lambasted an increase of prices on goods, the admonitions ignored business cost increases elsewhere: Surging insurance premiums and the hire of private security. Doing business in a city which shuns prosecuting for a variety of petty offenses takes a toll.  

If Harris is elected, Chicago should also look for the CCSAO to decline charges for resisting arrest, trespassing, moving violations, assault, vandalism, battery, public lewdness or petit larceny. To Harris, these crimes will be dealt with through expansions to diversion programs or the charges dismissed entirely. Chicago can also expect Harris to mollycoddle juvenile offenders. Chicago should be prepared for reduced sentences on juvenile crimes and for juveniles charged as adults for violent offenses under only the narrowest circumstances, if ever.

Where Harris would likely inflict the most damage as State’s Attorney is with enforcing the law on a variety of weapons charges. Though gun violence carried out by criminal gangs accounts for over 80 percent of Chicago’s crime, Harris can be expected to refuse to seek jail time for illegal gun possession. In other instances, such as armed robbery, Harris could conceivably reduce charges to misdemeanor larceny.

It is also worthwhile to add Harris could also inflict harm as prosecutor on the occasion a law-abiding citizen defends themselves against a gun-wielding carjacker. To her credit, Foxx declined to prosecute instances of citizens in possession of a Concealed Carry License lawfully defending themselves against armed carjackers. Nevertheless, it is plausible to speculate Harris would prosecute citizens lawfully defending themselves against armed criminals.

Kim Foxx promised to make Chicago a safer place with fewer punitive policies. In her effort to reorient the priorities of the office, Foxx gutted the CCSAO, applied soft-on-crime policies, and freed convicted murderers from behind bars. A disaster for Chicago, a CCSAO under Clayton Harris would be worse.

While the options for Chicago voters are limited, they are not entirely non-existent. Unless Chicago’s conservative or moderate Democratic voters become sufficiently energized and turn out to demand the CCSAO return to prosecuting crime, Chicago will continue to witness an erratic approach to criminal prosecutions, more sympathy extended to violent offenders, more lawlessness, and a continuing decline in quality of life.

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