Conversations on Wisdom: Kim Foxx

video and discussion

Kim Foxx is the Cook County State’s Attorney. She is the first African American woman to lead the Cook County office, the second largest prosecutor’s office in the United States. When she took office in 2016, Attorney Foxx set forward a series of criminal justice reforms in public safety, equity, and challenging the association of Chicago with crime. Our conversation focused on wisdom, reflection, and experience in policy efforts, policy’s impact on youth, and gaining wisdom from past decisions.

Center for Practical Wisdom Jean Boulware: Our conversation today we are speaking with Illinois state's attorney Kim Foxx. Thank you and welcome.

Attorney Foxx: Thank you.

Boulware: At the Center for Practical Wisdom, we define wisdom as practical decision making that leads to human flourishing. When thinking about justice and policy, how do you think wisdom can play a role?

Attorney Foxx: I think wisdom plays a critical role in policy, particularly around criminal justice. I think what we've seen in times past with a lot of bad policy, is it's just reactionary. Something will happen and then someone will say, “We must do something about this” and then all practical wisdom goes out of the window with a policy that has been shaped to deal with a specified circumstance and not with the entirety of situations. I think it's really important that policy makers, particularly in the justice space, tap into their wisdom, based on their own experiences - their academic knowledge, their own personal history of challenging situations and how they've overcome them…and then think (about) what is the broader impact of what it is that we're trying to do. I think so much failed criminal justice policy has been the result of the dismissal of wisdom in the search for easy solution.

Boulware: You've made huge strides within the County in just the last couple of years. We have an increase in safety and a decrease in incarceration. How does your own personal wisdom and experience play a role in your policy efforts?

Attorney Foxx: I think everything that I do is driven by my own experiences and the challenges that I've faced in the communities that I come from.  I think it's great that I have a job where I'm able to marry that and a legal background. When you're talking about criminal justice, when you're talking about public safety - that is all a human endeavor. I don't care how many algorithms people come up with to try to assess whether someone is a risk or not. We're talking about people.

Most of the people who come through our criminal justice system, both as victims and defendants, have a series of risk factors that we often talk about: whether they come from concentrated poverty, whether they have a history of abuse or trauma. There are about 10 things that we look for. I, in my own life share probably 8 of the 10 risk factors for someone who would end up in our system. But I have the benefit of also being on this side of it and having the ability to say, “Listen, I can recognize what that person is going through. I can recognize the humanity even in the person who's been accused of doing something wrong.” And so that for me enables me to see when we're looking at practical solutions, the totality of someone.

I think we've done this one dimensional approach to the people that we serve and my experiences and the collection of them that feeds my wisdom, tells me that one dimensional solutions just don't work. So my policy decisions - my map in how we're going to run this office- is based on what has happened to people like me in my communities and what would happen if we were allowed to be vulnerable enough to drive our decision making off of that.

Boulware: I feel like a lot of what people tend to hear is about your policies as they impact adults, but what you're speaking of and what you've talked to in the past is youth experience. Are there any policies that you are particularly proud of that affect youth incarceration rates or more appropriately keeping youth out of their first (entry)?

Attorney Foxx: I think we do a lot around youth that you probably wouldn't even think of looking through the lens of youth. For example, with bail reform, what we have to recognize is that a lot of the people who end up in the jail are parents. A lot of the people who end up in the jail are primary caregivers. When we have people who are locked up because they cannot afford to post a bond, and not because they're a danger to society, the first question that I think all of us should be asking is, “While this person is away, who's caring for the children?” There is a child that is generally attached to the people who come through our systems. And so every aspect of what we do, we have to keep in mind, we're not talking about one individual. They're part of a larger constellation.

Bail reform absolutely has an impact on young people. What we find is children who have incarcerated parents tend not to fair as well. We do a lot around trauma & childhood trauma. How young people react to trauma may manifest itself in many different ways. In juvenile justice, for example, we see a lot of kids who get in trouble at school for fighting, for mouthing off, for doing things that typical adolescents do and sometimes with an extra layer on that. Our response should be “Who are you and what are you going through versus how can I punish you for that?”

What we find for a lot of these kids - whether they're suffering from the history of sexual abuse, trauma, domestic violence, a parent who has substance use disorder or a mental health challenge- all of the things that they carry at home, they are now in school. And being told,  “Learn. Tell me your multiplication tables.” I know you're probably worried about where you're going to eat tonight, where are you going to go if you're homeless. Having been homeless and watching my mother as a survivor of domestic violence, all of those things, I remember what it was like to go into class and someone trying to teach me the Pythagorean theorem. And so everything that we do, every policy decision that we have has an impact on young people.

Boulware: You can take your wisdom and your experiences to the table, but how do you get others to hear that?

Attorney Foxx: I think we have to start with the premise that others have their own life experience resilience moments. They have their own thing that they bring to the table. And I think the first thing we have to do is not make it so academic. I recognize it's all academic [Boulware laughter], but I think when you allow people to tap into their own experiences, we talk about empathy. I think we don't talk about empathy enough in this work. When I talk about our policies around drug use, for example, I don't know a single person that I've encountered that hasn't had a family member or friend or someone in their universe who hasn't struggled with drug abuse…not a one. When you then say, “Let me ask you this: that person who struggled with drug abuse that you know, that you love and you know would make different choices if they weren't in the grips of this, do you think the solution of locking them away will work?”  When you're able to put yourself in their shoes and ask what would you want for your loved one? What would you want for that person? You're a parent. You know my children disappoint me. They do things wrong all the time and I've told them ‘don't do this’ and yet they'll figure out a way to do it anyway. You know you wouldn't throw your own daughter away. You wouldn't throw your own son away.

I don't think you could just tell people, “I'm right, you're wrong. Here's the data. The data says I'm right.” We’re absolutely are reliant upon data-driven efforts, but I think it starts with everyone has a past. Everyone has something that they have done that they're ashamed of. Everyone has loved someone who has fallen short, who has been broken and asking yourself, how would you want someone to treat them? And then that opens the conversation. I've yet to meet anyone who has not met some or who has not had a direct experience with someone who has been disappointed, failed, or hurt.

Boulware: At the Center, we look to foundational concepts in wisdom such as epistemic humility, emotional intelligence, reflection, and perseverance in intellectual struggle. As a public servant, you're kind of the face of the State.  It takes quite a bit of courage along with all of these,  concepts in wisdom to admit fallibility. You face critics who scrutinize how you've handled justice reform  and high profile cases. How do you move forward with wisdom and in these types of situations?

Attorney Foxx: I think experience tells you that when you're doing something that is outside of the norms, there are going to be people who will challenge it. I'm not the first person to do something different or to do something controversial. In the moment where I'm deciding what it is that I'm going to do, I don't necessarily weigh if is this going to cause me backlash. If we do that, it is the very political thing to do. Then it's about you. Then it's purely selfish. If the risk assessment of whether or not you're going to do something that has the potential to impact broad swaths of our community is hinging upon my own personal concern for criticism, we'll get a justice system & we'll get a political system, that is really motivated by the interest of a small few. And so for me it has always been in the risk of not doing this, are there more people who will be impacted because of my fear or because of my self-interest? And you don't go into elected office for self-interest and that's not just monetary. It's safety.

There aren't many people who look like me who get to sit in this job. They are not many people…there's never been a person who sat in this seat who came from Cabrini. There are thousands of families who had experiences, both good and absolutely negative with our justice system who, when I got this seat, are reliant upon me to tell their stories. This is a privileged seat. And so that means that I have to own and use this seat as though they are here with me. That the Maya Angelo quote “You see me standing alone, but I stand with 10,000.” That's what drives me. And so yes, there are going to be people who benefit from the status quo, who have never seen anything wrong with our justice system. I've met a fair number of people who say “The system is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing.” I've met a fair number of people who don't talk about people. They talk about animals, those people. “I want you to do something about them.” It's hard to have a ‘us versus them’ when you're a them. And I think the easiest thing would be to pretend like I'm part of the us. And so, what I bring to this work is reflection: how did I get where I am? How blessed and fortunate I am -with all of those risk factors & with all of the challenges- to be able to be here. And an absolute obligation to those that didn't make it, whether that's loss of life or whether they've been incarcerated. I have a responsibility. And so if it's controversial, the analysis is doing what I'm doing in my own protective self-interest or to the benefit of the broader community. And that's how I weigh my analysis. I think the distrust that people have about politics in systems is: people don't talk authentically about who they are and where they come from. They say the thing that polls well. They do the thing that is about image and their image.  

I just feel so fortunate. When I walk the streets of Chicago that is mostly marginalized communities that say “Thank you for seeing us”. It's not even seeing them. I am them. For communities that have not had much impact, whether it's with people of color, whether it's people who come from circumstances like mine, I owe it to them…so that they can reflect, so that they can challenge themselves of the notions that they have about people from public housing or the notions that they have about survivors of sexual abuse or assault. I owe it to all of our development to always show up in the fullness of myself. I think we haven't gotten as far as a community, as a society because people have hidden who they are and their experiences in the interest of preserving their position.

I think what I would say is that wisdom comes also from making bad decisions too. I've made my share of decisions that didn't turn out the way that I thought they would. But I always try to use them as a learning experience in being able to admit when you have done something wrong and learn how you can get better from that.

Part of why a reckoning is going to happen is that for decades we were doing things absolutely wrong. The people who were impacted by it and the people who suffered as a result of the war on drugs. It resulted in three strikes laws or a language around super predators and how we treated juveniles. We are living with the residual effects of bad policy and the generational effects that it has. If we don't say, “We got it wrong, that our wisdom of experience has told us that the way that we've approached this has done more harm than good”, then we're going to not have the relationships with community that we need. We talk about public safety. The people who say, ‘I'm not going to pick up the phone to call the police because I saw what happened with Jon Burge’ and we don't own and acknowledge that you are not irrational for thinking that way or why these communities don't participate. Own what's happened in the past, learn from it and actively and with intentionality work to fix it. That's what wisdom is to me. It's not just ‘I've had some stuff happen to me and now I know better’. There's a whole series of things that you need to do in order to then grow from it and then be a part of a broader community.


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