Anna Wilhelmi, candidate for prosecutor in DeKalb County, Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Anna Wilhelmi)

A candidate for prosecutor in DeKalb County makes the case that fighting mass incarceration will make people safer than President Trump’s “law and order” messaging.

This article is part of our national coverage of 2020 prosecutor elections.

To bolster his re-election bid, President Trump is deploying a “suburban strategy,” betting that voters who live outside of the country’s biggest cities will react warily to the Black Lives Matter protests happening since George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer in late May.

But these protests have popped up in small towns and in suburban or exurban counties as well. In DeKalb County, Illinois, a county of more than 100,000 people about 65 miles west of Chicago, large crowds have gathered to demand change in law enforcement and criminal justice practices.

Anna Wilhelmi, the Democratic nominee for state’s attorney in DeKalb County this fall, has attended the protests herself. “I held my sign high for all those black lives stolen and betrayed by cover ups,” she wrote on Facebook in June after one march. And she now thinks that the breadth of the local Black Lives Matter coalition may counter the president’s message.  

“It was amazing to see this sea of people, white people and Black protesters, all together marching through the streets of Sycamore,” Wilhelmi told me, describing the scene at one protest.

I talked to Wilhelmi last week about why she thinks that criminal justice reform, rather than the “law and order” outlook Trump called for, is more conducive to public safety. And I asked how she would use the vast discretion of the prosecutor’s office to advance accountability for law enforcement and also decrease incarceration, as neighboring Cook County has achieved.

Wilhelmi, a real estate attorney and former public defender and criminal defense attorney, explained her policy stances. They include maintaining a “do not call” list of police officers with a history of wrongdoing, supporting an end to cash bail, avoiding criminal convictions over drug possession, and ending life without parole sentences for minors. She also said she would advocate for strengthening funding for social services operating outside of law enforcement.

“When you invest in your community, you get so much more back,” she said.

Wilhelmi faces Republican State’s Attorney Rick Amato on Nov. 3 in this politically divided county that voted for Hillary Clinton by 3 percentage points in the 2016 presidential race.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

DeKalb County is about a two hour-drive from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in August. What is your reaction to that shooting, and what do you draw from it in terms of systemwide issues that demand change?

That incident with Jacob Blake while he’s walking away is a really blatant example of police and of their attitudes towards Black people and other people of color. The other side of that is the reaction from other mostly white people trying to make excuses for this person being shot seven times in the back with his children in the backseat. It’s just so amazing to see that stark reality. 

There have been ongoing protests since George Floyd right in DeKalb County, which is amazing. We’ve got the youth out there in the streets. It shows how bad policing is right now as far as relating to the Black community and the BIPOC community. I am definitely wanting to accompany these youths and activists in this Black Lives Matter movement and I have participated in protests—not all of them because they were at first out there every day, but I have been participating.

A major story now in the presidential election is that President Trump appears to be betting that voters who live outside of cities will react negatively to the protests, and “backlash” against them, so to speak, in the name of “law and order.” Here you are running in a prosecutor’s race, in an exurban county. on a platform that emphasizes criminal justice reform. Does the president’s strategy match what you hear in DeKalb County? 

I think that there is backlash. But I also see, especially because of the videos rising so fast into the public of these police shootings and things, I see that there are people responding with kind of disgust, in a good way. There was a big protest in Sycamore, and there were a lot of white people that were protesting on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was amazing to see. It was amazing to see this sea of people, white people and Black protesters, all together marching through the streets of Sycamore. 

President Trump is repeating the expression “law and order” to capture what his message is. What do you make of that expression and its connection to criminal justice reform?

Those words have been used as a tool to suppress people and to violate people. President Trump, when he uses those words, he uses them as a knife, as a tool of division and oppression. But when I think of justice and fairness, that is the position that I’m running for: justice for everyone, and fairness for everyone. And that means keeping people safe. 

Can you say more about why you think emphasizing criminal justice reform policies would promote safety? An argument of “law and order” rhetoric is that safety requires more punitive practices; what makes you think otherwise?

There’s a few parts to this. When we correct the illegal behavior of law enforcement, we minimize their unjust acts towards people. And that builds trust in the community. When you are able to hold law enforcement accountable, the community who we are ultimately here to serve will be able to trust, will be able to count on the people who are supposed to serve them. That makes everyone safer. They can call who they are supposed to call if they’re in trouble. We need the police for those violent crimes; we need them to protect us in these violent situations. It hurts everybody, when we don’t have a just criminal legal system.

The second part of that question is about incarcerating people. When we incarcerate for nonviolent crimes—I’m not talking about violent crimes, those are a whole other thing that we need to address—we’re taking someone out of their support system, and we’re placing them in isolation for some significant period of time. They’re going to eventually come back out into the community. It’s very difficult to get a job. It’s difficult when your family has been destroyed. 

Prosecutorial discretion is huge. We can do deferred prosecution; we can do alternative dispositions; we can have diversion programs and treatment and focus on the individual. 

And of course the community has to do their part too, the city and the county as far as resources. That’s having to do with taking money from the police department and spreading it out into communities that don’t have money. In Evanston, they are taking money from taxes earned on marijuana legalization and using it for reparations and for Black families to be able to buy homes and things like that. When you invest in your community, you get so much more back.

Accountability for policing in DeKalb County

What do you think, in DeKalb’s criminal legal system in particular, relates to the demands of the protests you were discussing earlier?

Data from IDOT [Illinois Department of Transportation], in a study of 2017, showed that 37 percent of [traffic] stops by the DeKalb police were of Black people. [Note: The IDOT study of 2018 traffic stops showed a similar share, 38 percent. 14.5 percent of DeKalb city is Black.] You can’t just brush that under the rug, you have to pay attention to that data. We know what the stats are at least as far as self-reporting with the IDOT data, but we don’t have anything further: What’s happening in our [county] system? Why are 40 percent or 50 percent of people sitting in their courtrooms Black? 

You may be up on the case of Elonte McDowell in 2019. He’s alive, thank goodness. He was pulled over and he was choked by one of the [DeKalb] officers, and he was choked to the point that he passed out, and then he was tased. The state’s attorney elected to go to the grand jury. We all know as attorneys that they tend not to indict police officers. So this particular state attorney decided to take the information to a grand jury, and got a no bill, rather than appoint a special prosecutor. It was such an egregious act that people are not recovering from it. It’s trauma-inducing, it’s a continuing festering thing. 

So, if you had been in office, what would you have done in such a case that wasn’t done? Would you have appointed a special prosecutor? Would you have a policy of systematically appointing a special prosecutor in use of force cases?

If I have a conflict, then yes I would ask a judge to appoint a special prosecutor. We are still an independent office. I’m not just an arm of the police. But we work together as offices, and that could create an inherent conflict, so I would have to take a look at that, and if in fact that’s the case, then I would ask for a special prosecutor to be appointed. 

If I really wanted to prosecute, I would not go to a grand jury with a police officer case, where a police officer is the one who I perceive as having broken the law. 

Some community advocates in DeKalb have asked for stronger civilian oversight. Would you support a civilian oversight board in DeKalb that has the power to independently investigate police wrongdoing, including issue subpoenas?

Yeah, absolutely. Especially with some bite to it, with subpoena power. 

Nationwide advocates have also called on prosecutors to establish “do not call” lists, namely public lists of police officers with a history of wrongdoing that they will not call on or rely on in the course of prosecuting their cases. Some prosecutors have done this, and some candidates have said they would. If elected, would your office maintain such a list?

Yes. This type of disclosure is one of the many ways that prosecutors can hold police accountable for police misconduct. Frankly, the public should be aware of current and past misconduct allegations against officers.

Another demand voiced in protests in DeKalb, echoing national conversations, has been to move funds reserved for law enforcement be redirected to other public services. What public services outside of law enforcement in DeKalb do you think most need to be boosted, especially when it comes to improving public safety? And would you favor shifting some resources from law enforcement toward them?

I absolutely believe that we spend too much money in the police budget that doesn’t have to do with servicing our community. What about the parents who have an autistic child and have to call 911 if the child acts out and gets violent and breaks stuff? I would be concerned about calling up police when my autistic child is acting out, for concern that their life would be taken or that they would be hurt in some way, rather than having mental health professionals to call in that moment. 

Ideally, I think that resources should be used to expand services outside the law enforcement umbrella. This will help ensure that systemic racial and other biases that may exist within the department will not negatively affect the services provided by a qualified professional.  However, I think that within the department there should also be educated servicers that coordinate with services outside the department, to ensure that the intervention is done in the most safe and effective manner.

Prosecutorial discretion in charging and sentencing

I’d like to return to your earlier points about prosecutorial discretion and charging options. Drug possession typically triggers felony-level charges in Illinois. To what extent would you implement policies to curb that? For instance, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx set a presumption of no incarceration for drug possession cases, helping fuel a decline in prison admissions; and she has avoided felony-level charges in more drug cases. Would you pursue similar policies in DeKalb? And if so, would your goal for drug possession specifically be to avoid incarceration or will you want to avoid convictions as well? 

Absolutely: Not just avoiding incarceration but the felony label is huge. This is a medical issue when somebody is addicted to drugs. As far as possession, I could use deferred prosecution, send them into treatment; depending on how things would be set up in my office, we could do where you have a criminal charge placed and they go into treatment and then dismiss the charges. My goal would be to keep them out of the system and get them into treatment. 

Some of these proposals would still use the tools of prosecution. Some prosecutors, such as DA Rachael Rollins in Boston or candidate Jose Garza in Austin, have run on the idea that they won’t prosecute or charge simple drug possession because this is a matter for public health that the criminal legal system shouldn’t be involved in. What do you think of that approach? 

I am open to that. I haven’t delved into that, but I am open to that. 

Protesters in DeKalb have also called for the elimination of cash bail, which would mean no longer linking pretrial release to payment of financial conditions. This is an issue that the state legislature has already been discussing. Do you think that cash bail has any role to play in the criminal legal system? 

It’s discriminatory, and I don’t think there’s a purpose for it, and I am running on that: I do not believe there’s any condition where a cash bail would be something that would stop someone from fleeing or make somebody more safe. Mostly people go to court, they don’t want to be arrested for not showing up to court.

When you have a situation where a person rips off a bunch of senior citizens millions of dollars, and then they post a $30,000 bond and get out and they can assist in their own defense, they can go home, they can hang out with their family and not have restrictions. Whereas somebody with a misdemeanor charge or felony charge, can’t leave the jail because they can’t post $500 bond. They could be out and they could be at home and they could assist in their own defense and still come to court. It’s not effective. It’s effective in keeping poor people in custody: That’s what it’s effective at doing.

Is your goal to overall have fewer people in jail pretrial or is to remove the financial aspect of it? There are ways people are still kept in jail pretrial without any bail condition, because they’re ruled that they shouldn’t be released. 

I think that the impact would be to have less people in pretrial, to minimize how many people are being kept pretrial when they don’t need to be. But in violent cases, they shouldn’t be able to get out on $1,000. You’ve got to evaluate that case, and you’ve got to determine, especially in domestic violence cases, whether or not that person is dangerous to the victim and what you’re going to do to protect the situation. 

You mentioned aiming your policies toward changing approaches to nonviolent offenses. But many Illinois organizations also raise major concerns about the very lengthy sentences people serve for higher-level offenses: Thousands of people are serving virtual life sentences in Illinois, a state that has abolished parole for most cases. And 68 percent are Black, according to the Sentencing Project. Do you see these existing sentencing schemes as part of the problem of mass incarceration? Would you favor legislative proposals to scale back virtual life sentences? 

I definitely share concerns about lengthy and life sentences. Mandatory minimum sentencing is a problem, and the impact of that sentencing contributes to the mass incarceration problem we have today. Although laws look color blind on their face, the fact that 68 percent of those serving life sentences are Black reveals the disparate impact of these laws upon Black people. I would advocate to scale back what turns out to be in effect life sentences for people, and would agree that those types of sentences being served should be subject to review, except for the most heinous of crimes.  

Relatedly: 23 states and Washington D.C. have abolished life without parole sentences for minors, but Illinois has not done so. Would you ever seek such a sentence against a minor? 

No.

You’ve never worked as a prosecutor before, and you said last year that this is an asset that your candidacy would bring to the table. Why do you think that is?

I have criminal defense experience, and there’s a multitude of criminal defense attorneys who switch sides and become prosecutors because you’re doing the same thing except on the other side, in terms of procedure. But I bring so much more: I bring the idea that the criminal justice system is broken. We need to make it just. And who better to do that than someone who is educated on criminal justice reform, and knows the stats, and knows that mass incarceration is not OK, and knows that the Black community is being targeted by the police on a daily basis? We have to address these issues.