Cook County prosecutor quits after 20 years: ‘this State and County have set themselves on a course to disaster’

CHICAGO — A 20-year veteran prosecutor walked out of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office for the last time on Friday.

Jason Poje, a long-time felony trial attorney for the office, entered his two-week notice on April 21. But before he moved on to the next chapter of his life, Poje sent a goodbye email to 85 colleagues late Friday afternoon.

In his farewell, Poje extended thanks and appreciation to his colleagues. And he explained why he decided to leave the office — and the state. Here’s what he wrote:

After 20 years, I always kind of figured an email like this would start with “It is with a heavy heart that I leave…” The truth is, I can’t get out of here fast enough.

Let me start with the positive. There is not a single day that has gone by that I have not felt truly honored to work with such an incredible group of people who spent every waking hour on behalf of victims. This opportunity has been a gift for which I have no words to explain the extent of my gratitude.

My partners, our Victim/Witness advocates, our Investigators, our support staff, the police officers and detectives, time after time I see each of you putting everything you have into helping people we encounter on the worst days of their lives. So often I see our personal lives, and indeed at times our own well-being, set aside just to do a little bit more on that last case for that last victim. It’s been nothing short of inspiring not as a lawyer, but as a person.

And yet, I’m leaving. Why could that be? The simple fact is that this State and County have set themselves on a course to disaster. And the worst part is that the agency for whom I work has backed literally every policy change that had the predicable, and predicted, outcome of more crime and more people getting hurt.

Bond reform designed to make sure no one stays in jail while their cases are pending with no safety net to handle more criminals on the streets, shorter parole periods, lower sentences for repeat offenders, the malicious and unnecessary prosecution of law enforcement officers, overuse of diversion programs, intentionally not pursuing prosecutions for crimes lawfully on the books after being passed by our legislature and signed by a governor, all of these so-called reforms have had a direct negative impact, with consequences that will last for a generation.

Many years ago my family found a nice quiet corner of the suburbs. Now my son, who is only 5, hears gunfire while playing at our neighborhood park, and a drug dealer is open-air selling behind my house (the second one in two years). If it were just me to consider, I’d stick it out. I’ve been through stupid State’s Attorney policies before. But this Office’s complete failure to even think for a moment before rushing into one popular political agenda after another has put my family directly in harm’s way.

The current people in charge of this state, including the [State’s Attorney’s Office] suffer from a fundamental misunderstanding…we live in a society with adversarial court and criminal justice processes. Defense attorneys, legal aid clinics, Public Defenders, defendant advocate groups…they fight like hell to protect the rights of criminal defendants. And they should. Their work is as noble as our’s. But we have an obligation to fight like hell on behalf of the People. It should go without saying that this must be done ethically and evenhandedly. When both sides vigorously defend their positions, a balance is reached between protecting rights while preserving some sort of order and safety. Once we start doing too much of the defense’s job, once we pull our punches, once we decide that it’s worth risking citizens’ lives to have a little social experiment, that balance is lost. The unavoidable consequences are what we are witnessing in real time, an increase in crime of all kinds, businesses and families pulling up stakes, and the bodies piling up; the whole time with a State’s Attorney who insists that there is nothing to see here, and if there is it must be someone else’s fault. And then they wonder why they cannot retain experienced prosecutors or even hire new ones…it’s because any true prosecutor recognizes the importance of this balance, and that they will not be permitted to be a prosecutor under this administration.

I will not raise my son here. I am fortunate enough to have the means to escape, so my entire family is leaving the State of Illinois. I grew up here, my family and friends are here, and yet my own employer has turned it into a place from which I am no longer proud to be, and in which my son is not safe.

To everyone in the trenches in the State’s Attorney’s Office and in law enforcement, my one regret is that I cannot be at your side anymore as you continue to fight the good fight. I do not envy the task you have before you, but you have my utmost respect for carrying on. I hope one day you are successful at returning some kind of common sense and security to our communities.

Thank you all so much for this opportunity to serve. I will treasure every moment of this chapter in my life. Be safe, be well, fight hard.

Jason F. Poje
Assistant State’s Attorney

Poje is not the first state’s attorney staffer to put their departing thoughts in writing.

Natosha Toller, the office’s well-respected chief of criminal prosecutions, announced her sudden departure in an email last February. High-profile supervising prosecutor James Murphy followed her out the door in July after firing off an email that reflected on the office’s mission and offered a blistering appraisal of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Foxx herself announced last month that she will not seek reelection in 2024.

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