When Kimberly M. Foxx was sworn in as the first Black woman in Illinois to lead the Cook County attorney’s office in 2016, she also joined the “Sisters Circle” with 20 other Black female prosecutors.
Over Foxx’s two terms, she has seen the support group’s numbers fluctuate – yet members’ concerns remain the same.
“In doing this work, are we protected? Who protects us?” Foxx told Capital B just weeks after she announced she wouldn’t seek a third term.
“For many of us, the political landscape has become incredibly toxic. And it has gotten to a place where people who have historically not been protected feel even less safe,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is continue to hold community, but also continue to say there’s a point where your service should not cost you your life.”
In recent months, several high-profile Black female prosecutors have either resigned or like Foxx, opted not to seek reelection. Last month, former Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins resigned more than a year after she was sworn in as President Joe Biden’s pick for Massachusetts attorney general, following a federal ethics investigation. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner resigned two weeks earlier than her planned June 1 exit date after years of concerted efforts by the city, police union, and others to remove her from office. Both Rollins and Gardner were the first Black people appointed and elected, respectively, to those positions.
From the moment most of these women announced their intention to run for office to after they won, they endured misogynistic and sexist challenges, received racist and anonymous death threats, and have been under a constant microscope.
“As Black women, we are going to be the ones that try to put all of this on our backs, but we also know that we have children and families and community who need us to be healthy and happy,” Foxx says. “We aren’t telling anybody that you are obligated to stay and do this work because we have earned the right to rest. But we are also saying ‘let’s build up community, let’s find those people who will take our place.’”
In the last decade, reform-minded or progressive prosecutors appealed to more voters as calls for police accountability and public awareness of the injustices within the criminal legal system grew. Foxx, Mosby, Rollins and Gardner were part of that sea change. As policy changes around reform in cities across the U.S. were implemented, the backlash – and sometimes smear campaigns – from police unions and Republicans was swift. Black women prosecutors were often among the biggest targets.
Despite the increase of chief prosecutors who are Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American and multi-racial, Black women are still underrepresented compared to their white counterparts who make up over 95% of the prosecutorial population, according to data collected since 2014 by Reflective Democracy Campaign. The data project was founded by the Women Donors Network, a national network of women in leadership positions and the only organization known to have tracked this information.
Women of color have represented well below 2% of the prosecutorial population for as long as the Reflective Democracy Campaign has kept track of these figures. Black women have broken glass ceilings by becoming the first to earn those titles with each election victory. But compared to the over 1,600 white men who have consistently led prosecutor offices, Black women’s historic gains are abysmal.
In 2021, there was a record high of 40 Black women leading prosecutor offices; up from 26 the year before. Those figures dropped the following year to 33, despite more prosecutor offices reporting their data to the Reflective Democracy Campaign researchers, according to a preliminary report provided to Capital B that will be officially published in the fall.
There are well over 2,100 variously titled elected chief prosecutors across the country. Those titles – attorney, attorney general, county attorney, county prosecuting attorney, district attorney, prosecuting attorney, solicitor general, and state’s attorney – have been traditionally held by white men.
The shrinking ‘Sisters Circle’
Baltimore’s Mosby, who was elected in 2015 as the youngest person in U.S. history to be elected to lead a prosecutor’s office, lost her third reelection bid in 2022. She ran on a platform of criminal justice reform and rose to national prominence in the 2015 criminal case against six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray. Last year’s defeat came amid a federal indictment that accuses her of perjury and making a false statement on a loan application when purchasing two homes in Florida. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is expected to go to trial in November.
“For our ‘Sisters Circle’ over the course of the last six months, it has been an incredibly difficult time,” Foxx says.
Foxx, a Chicago native, announced in April that she will not run for a third term. She says with a hint of sadness in her voice that she will be proud to leave next year with a solid foundation of reform after inheriting an office with centuries of injustices that affected the community she grew up in and still lives in.
During Foxx’s tenure, she launched a program that automatically expunged the criminal records of those with low-level marijuana convictions, created a public database to track arrests, convictions and sentences based on a resident’s zip code, and has revamped the office’s Conviction Review Unit to continue its work to overturn hundreds of wrongful convictions brought on by disgraced police officers. Before leaving office, Foxx says she aims to introduce a law to have a statewide CRU.
Throughout her tenure, however, she mostly made national headlines for the heavily scrutinized criminal investigation of Jussie Smollett’s allegation of being a victim of a hate crime. Reflecting on the public criticism of how she handled Smollett’s investigation, Foxx questions why the mistakes of a Black woman amplified for several news cycles “versus not even an interrogation of my predecessors who sent people to prison for crimes that they didn’t commit.” A special prosecutor took over the case and Smollett was convicted for making a false report to the police.
Despite the negative headlines, Foxx won a second term in 2020. Although she won’t be running in the November 2024 election, she hopes other Black women will take the reins.
The women of the Sisters Circle who are left to publicly battle their cities’ police unions, local lawmakers, and governors seeking to revoke their powers, are also forced to debunk inaccurate news coverage about their prosecutorial records.
With Mosby’s exit, Aisha N. Braveboy is the only Black woman chief law enforcement officer in Maryland. Braveboy says she is more than aware of the magnitude of responsibility she has to serve and protect members of the Prince George’s County community.
Braveboy’s career trajectory isn’t the traditional path of most elected prosecutors who are usually a career prosecutor or defense attorney. As a Prince George’s County native, Braveboy worked in local government, served as a private attorney, a state delegate, and volunteered with the county’s juvenile diversion program. In 2018, she successfully ran for state’s attorney with support from judges, law enforcement officials, sheriffs, and other players in the criminal justice system that she made positive connections with for nearly 20 years.
However, once Braveboy got into office and implemented policies that included launching a public integrity unit that reviewed cases of misconduct and malfeasance that resulted in the prosecution of 16 police officers, support from the police union shifted, she says.
“I was elected to do what the people, who supported me, wanted me to do and that’s my job which is to also hold officers accountable. These officers made bad choices like civilians made bad choices and sorry, but that choice that you made is criminal, and we have to hold them accountable,” Braveboy says.
Although Braveboy has not received the same level of vitriol as other members of the “Sisters Circle,” she understands it can take a toll on their mental, physical, and emotional health, having to continuously explain their every move to those who don’t want them in their role.
“ People shouldn’t stay in offices just because they feel like they have to for a cause or because there are a few Black women in the office and so we need to just stay ,” Braveboy says.
The ‘woke prosecutor’
Aramis Ayala decided half-way through her first term in 2020 not to run for reelection as Orange-Osceola, Florida’s top prosecutor when former Gov. Rick Scott took away her prosecutorial discretion because of her stance not to seek the death penalty for every homicide-related case.
Ayala’s exit paved the way for her successor, Monique Worrell, to become the second Black woman to lead the Orange-Osceola attorney’s office. Prior to winning the election, Worrell was a law school professor who Ayala hired to serve as the founder of the office’s Conviction Integrity Unit – one of the first in the state.
Worrell, like Ayala, is being challenged by the state’s Republican governor who is threatening to revoke her prosecutorial abilities. Gov. Ron DeSantis accuses Worrell of being soft on crime. Worrell has accused the governor of politicizing the Keith Moses case.
Earlier this year, Moses was charged after prosecutors say he went on a shooting spree that left a 9-year-old girl, a local journalist, and a 38-year-old woman dead. Worrell says they will seek the death penalty in the case against Moses.
DeSantis and other Republicans have labeled her a “woke prosecutor” – a term they haven’t been able to define. They questioned her office’s handling of a 2021 marijuana possession case against Moses and asked for a review of her other cases. Worrell’s office didn’t prosecute that case because of the small amount of weed found. A gun was also discovered, but the sheriff’s office didn’t test the gun for DNA to charge Moses with a felony that could have kept him in jail or prison at the time.
“If the governor’s intentions were truly to inquire about a failure to administer justice in this matter, it begs the question why he selectively solicited information in this matter from my office? Why did he not also solicit information from the sheriff in their self-proclaimed misstep in failing to test the firearm for DNA?” Worrell said earlier this year.
Melba Pearson, president of the National Black Prosecutors Association, says Worrell having to explain herself is eroding trust between Worrell and law enforcement – and it started with a misleading narrative from DeSantis.
“And that’s just one example,” she says.
Local Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Florida, and Missouri have passed laws to strip the power of prosecutors or take away voters’ right to elect who they want to lead their prosecutor office. Conservatives claim that not prosecuting low-level crimes such as loitering or possession of a small amount of marijuana are reasons why crime has spiked, but research shows it would reduce future crimes.
“That’s the kind of toll that after you’ve done that for a couple of terms, it gets exhausting…,” Pearson says. “All of these things impact the longevity of Black women in this role, not because they’re not qualified, but because there’s other stressors that their white counterparts don’t have to face.”
Ayala, Gardner, Mosby, Rollins, Foxx have each received a variation of racist and death threats in the mail, on social media, and in their voicemail. Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark served as a judge for nearly two decades before running for office, yet has received criticisms from police union leaders and has also been labeled as “woke.”
“I have yet to hear of a white female elected prosecutor that received a noose in the mail simply for doing her job or having their intelligence challenged even though they served as a judge,” Pearson says. Ayala received a noose in the mail during her first term.
Braveboy says that being a prosecutor is a thankless and dynamic job.
“And ultimately, you may not make anyone happy on a given day,” she says. “But the most powerful tool of a prosecutor is their discretion. You take that away from the prosecutor then you really don’t truly have someone who is an independent arbiter of justice. You really just have someone who is going along to get along and that is not what the community needs.”