Since the COVID pandemic, many people have changed their outlook on work, a trend that’s come to be known as the “Great Resignation.”
But Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office is seeing a degree of turnover that’s raising alarms among the criminal justice community.
Foxx’s office has previously blamed the pandemic-era shifts in the workforce on a dwindling pool of local prosecutors, but lawyer Dan Kirk said assistant state’s attorneys (or ASAs) leaving in droves isn’t normal, even during a Great Resignation.
“And anybody who says otherwise is simply trying to create an alternate narrative because they don’t want to admit the plain truth, which is that people just can’t tolerate working there anymore if it doesn’t match their vision of justice,” Kirk said. “And quite frankly, exposing the population of Cook County to dangerous criminals who every reasonable person agrees should not be allowed to walk the streets, should not comport with anybody’s sense of integrity and morals and ethics, and that’s why I’m not surprised that all these people are leaving in the numbers that they are.”
Kirk was the top assistant state’s attorney under Foxx’s predecessor, Anita Alvarez, whom Foxx bested in the 2016 primary. Prior to that, he worked as a prosecutor in the office under Dick Devine.
Kirk says his comments aren’t sour grapes; rather he knows how things are supposed to go, and he is regularly in touch with ASAs frustrated about how things are going under Foxx.
Those frustrations drew public attention when long-serving state’s attorney James Murphy recently resigned and blasted Foxx on his way out.
“I can no longer work for this Administration,” Murphy wrote in a sign-off to colleagues. “I have zero confidence in their leadership.”
Murphy went on to write that while he believes people shouldn’t be in jail just because they can’t afford bail, he disagreed with Foxx’s role in what he says was a rushed state law, the SAFE-T Act, that eliminates cash bail and makes other major changes to the criminal justice system.
Murphy also wrote that the Foxx regime is focused on PR stunts, isn’t living up to promises of focusing on prosecuting violent crimes and isn’t supporting ASAs working in courtroom trenches.
His adieu also references low staffing that he says is at dangerous levels, as “two person courtrooms and one person courtrooms are the norm. This has been going on for some time and is getting worse by the day. This is not a recent phenomenon. This Administration can claim that this attrition is due to the Covid Era. We all know that is not true.”
WTTW News was unsuccessful in attempts to reach Murphy.
But Kirk said there should be three ASAs per courtroom to handle hundreds of cases, and when it dips below that number, that’s a problem.
“You see supervisors within the state’s attorney’s office sending out desperate pleas for people to volunteer on days off or not take vacation because they’re understaffed and public safety is just frankly in jeopardy. Justice is in jeopardy,” Kirk said. “Even justice for those who are accused of the crime — you need an adequately staffed state’s attorney’s office to do justice both for the accused, for the victims of crime and frankly in the interest of public safety for all of us that live here and want to live in a safe community.”
Kirk said Murphy’s public condemnation of Foxx is “courageous” given that Foxx is part of the modern Democratic Party machine.
Foxx previously served as the chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, now the head of the Cook County Democratic party.
Murphy is not the only prosecutor to leave, though his letter and long tenure with the office is giving his exit much attention.
Yesterday, another longtime prosecutor, Ted Lagerwall, resigned.
WTTW News was told other prosecutors submitted their notices to leave on Wednesday. Representatives of Foxx’s office did not respond when asked for confirmation.
But Foxx defenders say people are changing jobs for any number of reasons.
A source close to the office sent a resignation letter of an ASA who wrote she regretted having to move on, but her family was moving out of state.
The source also sent a letter of another high-profile supervisor who left this year, Natosha Toller, chief of the criminal division, who resigned in February.
Like Murphy, Toller’s letter makes reference to pandemic-era “significant staffing shortages.”
Toller also wrote a shout out to Foxx, thanking Foxx for trusting her with a promotion.
Foxx’s office responded to questions from WTTW News with a statement.
“The Cook County State’s Attorney Office (CCSAO) remains a premiere employment opportunity for aspiring prosecutors seeking to make meaningful change in one of the largest and most complex court systems in the country,” Foxx’s communications department wrote in an email. “While the CCSAO, like other front-line employers across this nation, has not been spared in the departure of talented employees, we are committed to supporting our dedicated attorneys and staff who are faced with doing more with less, particularly in these challenging times. We recognize the rigors of this difficult work and the toll that it bears - yet over 1100 employees show up every day to work on the front lines and behind the scenes in a testament of the resiliency and spirit of this office, as we seek justice on behalf of the people of Cook County.”
Foxx’s office says in January 2020 there were 770 ASAs, and as of June this year, the number was only slightly below at 749. The office has made “made significant strides in legal hiring,” and is conducting exit interviews to “make this a culture where people want to work.”
But Kirk said the issue is that the county’s top prosecutor is asking attorneys on staff to “essentially be tantamount to the second defense attorney.”
“People within the state’s attorney’s office deserve to have a leader who has their back, supports them, makes decisions based upon the facts and the law and not based on the whims of her political supporters,” Kirk said.
Foxx won re-election to a second term in 2020 and would be up for another term in 2024.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky