Alderman eyes top prosecutor's job

Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. / photo by Tunisia Fortson

South Side Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. is looking to trade his current job representing residents in the Washington Heights, Auburn Gresham, Roseland and Chatham neighborohoods for the job of the county's top prosecutor.

Brookins joins a field of five other Democrats also seeking the job of retiring State's Attorney Richard Devine, who announced last summer that he would not seek a fourth term.

The field for the Feb. 5 primary includes one other city council member; 38th ward Alderman Tom Allen, who represents parts of Portage Park, Dunning and Irving Park.

Brookins, who was elected to represent the 21st ward in 2003, is the son of former Illinois State Sen. Howard B. Brookins, Sr.  A former assistant public defender, assistant state attorney and special assistant attorney general, Brookins now practices in his own firm.

Recently, Brookins sat down with the Chi-Town Daily News to discuss the agenda he would bring to the state's attorney's office, as well as some of the issues facing his constituents in the 21st ward.

Q. What three things do you want to do as state's attorney that aren't being done now?

A. The first goal is to create a set of procedures that will treat all people fairly. Currently, within the county, even in this country, there has been a disparity of impact when it comes to the treatment of minority and poor people. This has been well documented through Tribune articles (that) essentially state that African Americans are 58 percent more likely to be prosecuted for certain types of crimes in the majority of the community. Statistics confirm that African Americans comprise 14 percent of the population, and are 70 percent of the people incarcerated for a mere drug possession. So, to establish procedures to ensure equal treatment throughout the six different courthouses in the six jurisdictions within Cook County is one of my main goals.

From Markham to Rolling Meadows, from Bridgeview to Skokie, we need to establish things to be fair; to be equal with respect to the sentencing, to be equal in the way we treat defendants regardless of their money or their position in life, (to be equal) in the selection of the attorney they are able to hire to represent them.

The second goal is to bring diversity into the system. Currently, there are 900 attorneys in the state's attorney's office. Only 64 of them are African American and only 43 of them are Hispanic. We need diversity of thought and diversity of person. When you have the same people with the same background making the decisions, you tend to get a lot of groupthink. So, I really want to promote diversity of thought and diversity of personnel to resolve some uncommon problems that we are facing.

The third goal will be to modernize the office and bring it into the 21st century with computers and other tools that will make the office more effective and efficient.

Q. How has campaigning for state's attorney diverted your time from representing the 21st Ward? Or has it?

A. To an extent it has not. As an elected official and as an alderman, I meet with people and talk to them about their problems. People in my community are not unlike many people throughout this county who are having problems with the criminal justice system itself. Citizen concerns include the lack of response by law enforcement; prosecutors not taking cases; being overcharged for cases; and women trying to get child support. Helping people collect child support is another responsibility of the Cook County State's Attorney's office.

(Campaigning) hasn't diverted my attention because I'm still doing what I do. I'm going out and talking to people to try to come up with common solutions to problems.

Q. As far as your successor, the mayor typically selects the replacement for alderman resignations. Do you have any influence on who the mayor selects as your successor (if you win the state's attorney job)?

A. I assume that, if and when I'm elected, the mayor will listen to the recommendations that I have. He's been shown to be his own person, and may go outside of that and individually interview people. With respect to my particular seat, there will have to be a special election because there will be more than two years left in the term. Even if the mayor picked a successor, it will be a temporary selection. The people will ultimately select who they want to continue to represent them for my unexpired term.

Q. How will your relationship with the mayor change (if you) move from alderman to state's attorney?

A. I'm not sure that it will change, but we all have to work hand-in-hand. He commands the police and the police superintendent to do their jobs as far as enforcing the laws that are on the books. It is the job of the state's attorney to prosecute those people who are arrested by the police. There will be a different type of relationship because I will be an executive, if and when I become the Cook County State's Attorney. I will work with him as well, as all of the mayors in the towns in other jurisdictions, to see how we can help and assist though the Cook County State's Attorney office.

Q. You are currently serving your second term as the 21st ward alderman. There are 37,350 registered voters in the 21st ward. You won this position during a runoff and 61 percent of approximately 10,500 people came out to vote. What do you think your chances are of winning the SA office?

A. My chances of winning the SA office are excellent. As a matter of fact, we're considered the front runner. If you look at the votes total that put me into a runoff, I would have won every other ward in the city of Chicago with the total number of votes that I received at that point. The closest competitor to me that got me into the runoff was 11 percentage points below me. After the runoff, we extended the lead to win by more than 21 percentage points over the person that was in the runoff.

I think that when you step back and look, people will see that I've done an excellent job within the 21st ward in a short period of time. I have been outspoken with respect to the issues that are most critical to this particular office of state's attorney. My qualifications are impeccable. Generally, when African American people and others find a qualified candidate, an overwhelming majority will vote for them. That's how Dorothy Brown became elected to be the Clerk of the Circuit Court. John Stroger won against two majority candidates. The African American community along with others (I think) will come together and give me the margin of victory that I'll need against my five other opponents.

Q. Along with the 83rd Street projects ... that are in progress, what plan do you have in place to ensure success for the next 21st ward alderman should you become the next state's attorney?

A. Well, one, I intend on staying in the community and working with my successor. Hopefully, there will be a succession plan unlike when I was elected. Many people who beat incumbents were just thrown in there and made to invent the wheel all over again. We will introduce him or her to the persons within the community that are doing the various projects so that they can get a feel for what's going on, and hopefully seamlessly continue those projects that were already started. (They should) also put their vision for the ward in the plan.

Q. Regarding your vote against the property tax levy that (Chicago) Mayor (Richard) Daley wanted to institute. How has that affected your relationship with the mayor?

A. I have been consistent when it comes to property tax increases and other tax increases. This wasn't the first time that I've voted against the tax package. I did it the year prior. I think that the mayor respects people who have opinions. I'm not voting against the mayor for the sake of voting against the mayor. I had definite reasons for doing it. One, when it came to the water tax, I believed that to be illegal.

Second, I believe that we weren't taking all of the taxes off of the table. There is a lot of money that we could get in through natural means without going to the taxpayers and asking for additional money. Such as the Wal-Mart (in the 21st ward). Wal-Mart would have brought in more than $7 million in taxes a year for several years. That would have stopped us from being in the position we are in at this time where we would need so much money. It was for those reasons that I voted against the tax package.

Also, I was not willing to submit my own budget. I believe that the mayor, as the chief executive, has a right to determine his priorities for the city of Chicago because that's what the people elected him to do. My vote was, "Hey, you set your priorities with respect to the budget. However, as taxpayers, we don't want to give you this amount of money so maybe you need to re-prioritize what you want to cut out, and how you want to do it," etc.

Q. According to a Sun-Times article, you implied that African Americans don't trust county prosecutors. How do you intend to change that relationship?

A. I think the way to change that relationship is to lead by example. The reason why I made that statement is that we have seen individuals involved in police corruption, i.e. (former police commander) Jon Burge and all of the people involved with the torture of those 200 African American men not get prosecuted by the Cook County State's Attorney office. None of the people involved in minority set-aside and contracting fraud were brought to justice by the CCSA office.

Studies show a disproportionate impact of or treatment of minorities in terms of prosecution. These obvious differences lead to a lack of trust. If I'm showing that I am being fair, (that) I will prosecute whomever for whatever if the evidence leads to the fact that they are guilty of something, (that) I'm not ducking out on tough issues like police or public corruption or anything like that, I'm calling the shots right down the middle as opposed to protecting the politically connected and the people of the right sides of the track - or the so-called "right side" of the tracks, then I think that people will say that, "Well, if Howard said it, it must be so."

Q. In the same article, you stated that the current state's attorney's office chooses to prosecute too many small cases as felonies, giving African American offenders felony records that make them unemployable. How (would) you address this issue as the next state's attorney?

A. I will exercise discretion over charges. The state's attorney office gets to choose the charges for crimes and for what reason. I'll give you an example. I represented a young man who was charged for pulling a fire alarm when the students protested at Currie over the principal. Well, the act was a disorderly conduct charge, but that particular charge is a felony now. The state's attorney didn't have to charge him at all. Since they did charge him with a crime, the punishment that they were trying to impose did not meet the crime in which they accused him of doing. (We subsequently won the case.) As State's Attorney, we will look at those things and make sure we are applying the same standard across the board.

(The lack of consistency) is one of the things that a lot of the people in the community are complaining about. In the suburbs, on the so-called right side of the town, people are getting breaks and they never get into the system. However, our poor and minority people don't have the necessary resources, and they're getting into the system (for small petty things). They are getting records. Once you get a record, you're constantly being passed over for employment, etc.

Q. If you happen not to win the SA position, do you still plan to be an advocate (for) African American offenders?

A. Absolutely. That's one of the things I've been doing throughout my career as alderman. It's been a natural progression for me - fighting for underprivileged people, not just only African Americans, but Hispanic folks and people who are treated unfairly.

We tried to pass the Police Accountability Ordinance in our first term in office, and that went nowhere. We've been outspoken trying to get congressional hearings and signing off on the letter to the United States Attorney to prosecute Burge. I hold those issues near and dear because I've been a victim of racial profiling. I've been falsely arrested, had to sue the city of Chicago for "driving while black" and was successful.

These things continue to happen to a small segment of our society. It only seems to be happening to African Americans. Where there is injustice, I am going to constantly continue to fight and speak out about it.

Q. What are you going to do to fight injustices against minorities as state's attorney that cannot be done as alderman?

A. Clearly the State's Attorney office gets to choose who gets prosecuted and who doesn't, so we can re-shuffle the deck. We can go over a list of priorities for a community to get a holistic approach within the community. We will work with organizations that are helping people from ex-offenders to drug or self abusers.

In order to fight crime, in order to be effective, we have to dissuade people from doing it. Prosecuting people vigorously for abhorrent behavior and ridding society of certain things is one way. In addition, we have to address the underlying causes of many of the crimes within our community - drugs.

By working (on) the demand for drugs and trying to help people get off of them, as well as working with groups like Cease Fire, many crimes can be deterred before they escalate to violence. This will be done before it reaches the state's attorney's office.

Setting up and restoring community prosecution units is another mission. Assistant state's attorneys with offices in the community will have their fingers on the pulse. They will know the priorities of that community and will help the community. I don't have that authority as an alderman now.

Q. We used to have those programs in place?

A. Those programs were cut. They used to have community prosecution units in respective areas. Now, if they were in our area (the 21st ward), they weren't made known to me. In certain areas, they had community prosecution and we want to extend that service. Like (Illinois Attorney General) Lisa Madigan. Lisa Madigan has satellite offices within the community. The Cook County State's Attorney office has more attorneys than Lisa Madigan. So, if she, with about one-third the staff of the state's attorney office, can have community satellite offices, then why can't the Cook County State's Attorney office? These community satellite offices will be available to people with their community needs. Because every community is different, we can develop strategies to enhance the quality of life for every community.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Brookins' current law firm is his own. An earlier version identified his previous partnership, Brookins & Wilson.