Cook County state’s attorney candidates discuss juvenile crime in Democratic primary debate

Retail theft prosecution and juvenile crime were among the topics retired Illinois Appellate Court Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke and former Cook County prosecutor Clayton Harris III addressed during the Democratic primary candidate debate for Cook County State’s Attorney, which streamed Thursday on

The full debate will broadcast at 10:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, on ABC 7.

Asked about their position on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s decision not to prosecute as felonies retail thefts below $1,000, Burke said she took an oath as a judge to uphold the law and will take the same oath as state’s attorney.

“If there is an appetite to change the law, the correct way to do that is to go to Springfield and change the law,” said Burke, a former prosecutor and defense attorney. “It is not appropriate for an officeholder to say sua sponte (of his/her own accord) ‘I’m just not going to enforce the law.’”

Not all defendants charged with retail theft should go to jail, said Burke, pointing out the diversion programs available for first-time offenders who don’t reoffend, as well as supervision and probation for lesser offenses.

“Not enforcing the law doesn’t deter crime, it promotes crime,” she said during the debate hosted by ABC 7 Chicago, in partnership with WGBO/Univision Chicago, the League of Women Voters of Cook County and the League of Women Voters of Chicago.

“You can clear out several aisles in Walgreens before you get to the $1,000 threshold,” she said.

Harris, a University of Chicago public policy lecturer, said he will keep the $1,000 threshold for felony prosecution and continue to charge lesser offenses as misdemeanors.

However, in the case of a smash-and-grab, for example, “it doesn’t matter whether it’s $1,000, $300 or $4 … we can charge it as a burglary and that’s a felony,” he said. “If there’s an assault … we can charge it as a robbery, in which case it is a felony.”

Burke and Harris are vying to replace Kim Foxx who announced last April that she would not seek a third term as Cook County state’s attorney. Foxx faced criticism over her support for the elimination of cash bail as part of the SAFE-T Act; her decision not to prosecute low-level offenses, including retail thefts under $1,000; and her handling of the case involving actor Jussie Smollett, who claimed he was attacked in 2019 by two men uttering racial and homophobic slurs. Police determined Smollett staged the attack and he was convicted of five counts of disorderly conduct in December 2021.

Asked about how he will respond to the increased number of minors charged with crimes, including armed robbery and carjacking, Harris said his office will hold everyone accountable, but hold them accountable appropriately.

To that end, Harris proposes establishing a special prosecution unit focusing on organized crime, carjacking and the gun epidemic. He says he will work to “cut off the heads” of the criminal organizations, “people who are directing these children” to commit crimes.

“That’s where we need to focus our resources,” he said.

Burke pointed out that the juvenile court act requires defendants under 18 be tried in juvenile court, the exceptions being murder and aggravated sexual assault, which can be transferred to adult court.

“It is very difficult to detain a juvenile,” she said. “The question becomes what do you do with all this influx of juvenile crime with armed robberies and carjackings?”

Noting that most juvenile arrests occur between 3:30 and 10 p.m., Burke proposed providing young people with more structure after school, including enrichment, apprentice and job training programs.

“Children do not do well with unstructured time,” she said. “It’s time to give them structure.”

The primary election is March 19. The winner will face Republican candidate Bob Fioretti and Libertarian candidate Andrew Charles Kopinski in the general election.

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