Chicago’s Top Prosecutor Doomed Thousands Of School Kids

CREDIT: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

After eight years as the Cook County State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez may be voted out of the office on Tuesday for her role in Chicago’s scandalous police culture.

In the past few months, she’s been the subject of public outrage for her handling of Laquan McDonald’s shooting, which inspired calls for her resignation. But during her tenure as Chicago’s lead attorney, Alvarez has routinely covered up police violence and failed to prosecute cops for misconduct, including but not limited to deadly shootings, harassment, and making bogus arrests. She’s refused to reopen the cases of people who are likely innocent, criminalized people for recording officers, and bullied college students who were critical of her office.

Considered one of the most aggressive prosecutors in the country by Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, Alvarez has also gone to great lengths to prosecute Chicago’s school children. That’s why the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), which boasts 27,000 members, endorsed one of Alvarez’ opponents in February — the first time the union ever endorsed a state’s attorney candidate. In February, CTU president Karen Lewis said, “Kim Foxx is (the) only candidate with a real plan to invest in our next generation that will help end the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Alvarez, on the other hand, has funneled thousands of black and Latino/a Chicago Public School (CPS) students into the juvenile justice system and doomed their prospects for the future.

Ignoring Juvenile Law

Last year, a grassroots organization called Project Nia that compiles annual school arrest data reported that 7,703 arrests were made on CPS grounds during the 2013-2014 school year — 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in Chicago. In 2013 alone, 3,414 black students and 892 Latino students were arrested, compared to 192 of their white counterparts. Fifty percent of the arrests were for simple battery, or school fights, and disorderly conduct. Just under 25 percent of total school-based arrests were non-index offenses that the CPD defines as “less serious offenses.”

More than half of the students were under 16 years old.

During the 2011-2012 school year, there were 9,246 arrests, including kids as young as 10 years old. And in 2010, there were 6,430. The vast majority of arrests during that three-year period were for misdemeanors.

There are usually two CPD officers stationed at every CPS campus, but many schools hire additional security and seven high schools have internal booking stations.

Project Nia’s founder and director, Mariame Kaba, told ThinkProgress that the number of school-based arrests has declined roughtly 30 percent over the past few years, but Alvarez’ leadership has not been the cause.

“If anything, [Anita Alvarez] exacerbates the situation,” she said. “You’re supposed to take into account that these are children. The directives that she issues within her own office, basically she believes that incarceration is the first resort. The research doesn’t support that, around children and how [they] make mistakes.”

Critics of the current state’s attorney, including Kaba and Foxx, say Alvarez generally seeks the maximum penalties for juveniles who enter her office, including ones who are arrested on school grounds. The Juvenile Court Act of Illinois stipulates that the “moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare of the minor” should always be prioritized, but Alvarez has chosen the opposite approach.

“Unfortunately for our youth, Ms. Alvarez has taken discretion away from frontline [assistant state’s attorneys],” Foxx, a former attorney under Alvarez, wrote on a candidate questionnaire. “In juvenile court she has also directed her ASAs to seek the maximum penalty in every case and seek approval to reduce charges or plea agreements that don’t offer the maximum sentence. This directly violates the spirit and text of the Juvenile Court Act and is also the reason that bench and jury trials have increased at juvenile court.”

No Second Chances

Even if cases don’t make it all the way to court, arrests stay on the books long after an offense has been committed. In Cook County, all it takes is an arrest — not an official charge — to get a criminal rap sheet. So if a child is arrested for a school-based offense but released to a parent without being adjudicated, that offense is recorded and sent to a state criminal database.

In the past, a coalition of activists and city officials, including Project Nia and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — tried to push legislation to expunge juvenile arrest records. But Kaba said Alvarez fought those efforts tooth and nail.

“Her challenge was basically, ‘What if a young person commits a crime later on and the records are not in the system? We wouldn’t know that they’d be arrested before,'” Kaba explained. “So that means you’re just trying to figure out ways to [give] harsher punishments and criminalize children more. It did not make any sense to people.”

The director said she has seen the long-term damage school arrests and criminal rap sheets have on students.

Years ago, a 13-year-old eighth grader was arrested for a school fight and brought to the police station. Her parents picked her up and she wasn’t officially charged. Eight years later, the student graduated from college with a nursing degree and applied for a state license to get her career off the ground. But instead of a license, she received a letter from the state licensing bureau denying her request because of her arrest record. Kaba went to the police department with the student, and they both learned that the arrest on record was for the skirmish in school.

“[Students] don’t understand, especially if they’re let go, that just being in custody means they do have an arrest record,” Kaba said. “It’s just cumbersome and has negative consequences later on.”

President and CEO Shari E. Runner of the Chicago Urban League similarly pointed to the devastating consequences that school-based arrests have. Kids often resort to committing serious offenses because they don’t have employment or economic opportunities. By criminalizing them for their behavior in school, city officials are ultimately preventing young people from bettering their lives in the future, she told ThinkProgress.

“An expungement is not something that is easily attainable for anyone whose parents are not intimately engaged with what’s going on,” Runner said. “It’s a little bit different when…your dad’s a lawyer or you have other kinds of resources that can be brought to bear. Once [a school arrest] happens, and you have a record of any kind, especially as a juvenile, when you first start getting opportunities to get work experience…having a record limits you in many ways.”

Few families have the financial means to fight for their children without breaking the bank. Even if Alvarez is ousted, thousands of young people will be locked into the system because she wouldn’t give them a second chance.

“The real message about Anita Alvarez and the city of Chicago and the CPD….is [that] they’re all tied together,” Runner said. “It’s become a club where they protect each other and instead of really looking out for the welfare of the citizenry, they’re trying to do the best that they can to protect each other.”

Despite all of the backlash, the incumbent maintains she’s the best candidate for the job.

“I have a proven track record of being an independent prosecutor,” Alvarez said during a debate last month. “I don’t shy away from the hard cases. … I pride myself on making the decisions based on the facts, the evidence and the law.”

On Tuesday, that reputation will be put to the test. Leading up to the election, fed up young people have publicly called for a changing of the guard. Foxx, who grew up in Chicago’s public housing and saw how poverty impacts the criminal justice system, has appealed to those voters by advocating an independent police prosecutor, pushing for the shutdown of Homan Square, and establishing partnerships between schools and youth groups to keep kids away from the justice system.

“[Alvarez] gives lip service to supporting low-level misconduct [and] restorative justice,” Kaba concluded. “Her office has done nothing to create programs in the community that would actually divert young people from the system into restorative settings and spaces.”