Endorsement: Burke for Cook County state’s attorney

There seems little doubt that, if Democrats continue their historical control over the branches of Cook County government in November, important changes will take place in the operation of the state’s attorney’s office regardless of which candidate wins the Democratic primary on March 19.

Under outgoing Democratic prosecutor Kim Foxx, the attention of the office has tilted uncomfortably toward criminal justice reform and away from deterring criminals. Both Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III promise a better balance of those objectives.

Burke, in particular, offers the kind of promise that Cook County residents are looking for in their top criminal prosecutor. A retired appellate court justice, she recognizes the value of and need for many of the reforms implemented in Illinois in recent years, but she also shows a special determination not to let them diminish the office’s power to discourage people inclined to commit a crime or to prosecute those who do. She vows emphatically that one of her first acts should she win election will be to reimpose prosecution of shoplifting suspects at the $300 legal minimum rather than the $1,000 threshold Foxx established unilaterally. The symbolic value of Burke’s approach is important enough on its own, but as a practical matter, it also addresses overriding concerns many businesses have that shoplifters feel they’ve been given carte blanche to sweep into their stores and make off with as much merchandise as they can carry.

Harris, by the way, also has ideas in that vein, but his proposal to work with businesses to place their more enticing merchandise farther back in the store where it is both less alluring and less prone to quick removal seems like more a matter of accommodation than of protection.

Beyond this limited issue, though, Burke also makes an assertive case to, in her words, “reimagine what it means to be a state’s attorney through a robust restorative justice bureau that gets people’s lives back on track coupled with a felony prosecution division that is the best-trained trial lawyers in the country.” With past experience as a judge, a defense attorney and former assistant state’s attorney herself, she is uniquely qualified to achieve that vision.

Harris is a strong candidate. With experience being brought up in a military family and with his own background as a former assistant state’s attorney and experience teaching law at the University of Chicago, his credentials are solid, and he speaks with passion and determination about his ability to manage the office in a way that both respects the rights of the accused and prosecutes those who deserve it.

But we sense real fire in Burke’s commitment to rebuild the stature, morale and success of the state’s attorney’s office. We hope to see it burning in the spirit of the office over the next four years. Burke gets our endorsement.

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