A fair and equitable justice system depends on the public defenders whose job it is to represent those people who cannot afford a lawyer. Public defense work is civil rights work. It is the public defender who raises questions about interrogation methods, unlawful police stops, and excessive bail. It is also racial justice work. Nowhere is racial injustice more apparent than in the impact our criminal laws have had on people of color, particularly Black people. The public defender’s clients are among the most economically disadvantaged; in Cook County they are also overwhelmingly Black and brown.
The Cook County public defender’s office is among the largest — if not the largest — public defender organization in the world. Approximately 700 people work in the office as counsel to the accused, investigators, social workers, supervisors, and support staff.
Sharone Mitchell, Jr. was appointed to the post in March, succeeding Amy Campanelli, who raised the profile of the office. Mitchell will now lead Cook County’s public defenders in their critical role in speaking up for the underserved and disadvantaged. A former assistant public defender and, most recently, an effective advocate for criminal justice reform, Mitchell is a worthy choice. The challenges faced by the office are daunting, but the opportunities are many. Here is what we hope he’ll address first.
Overcome the de-personalization of the office’s clients
The first challenge facing Cook County’s criminal legal system is the chronic stigmatization and de-personalization of the many Black and brown defendants who appear in our county’s criminal courts. People are not their case numbers. Yet, day in and day out, hundreds of people learn whether they will be held on bail during a hearing that can last as little as 90 seconds. Judges decide whether someone will have their probation revoked in five-minute hearings. Hundreds of people each year learn that they will be sent to prison for decades in a hearing that lasts mere minutes.
This de-personalization and dehumanization is a consequence of many factors. One is the racial inequity and disparity that define the criminal system. The high volume of cases and the failure of the Circuit Court to rotate judges in and out of the criminal court also contribute to an unjust and depersonalized system. Judges are desensitized to the ongoing tragedy of the criminal system when they see the number of defendants coming out of the lockup day after day and year after year. De-personalization contributes to overreliance on prisons and jails. It contributes to people being viewed as cases.
The public defender’s office can counter the culture of de-personalization by identifying judges whose conduct demonstrates a continuing and chronic pattern of prejudice and unfairness or lack of competence. Utilizing the statutory right to automatic substitution of a judge, public defenders can and should remove cases from the courtrooms of those judges. Pursuing this policy would encourage Chief Judge Timothy Evans to assign qualified and impartial judges to the criminal division of the Circuit Court.
Demand equal standing with other system stakeholders
The public defender’s office has never had an equal seat at the table with other key Cook County criminal justice stakeholders. Why does this matter? Public defenders stand for and protect the rights of the accused, their families, and their communities. If the public defender’s office is not an equal player in Cook County criminal justice decision making, the interests of the individuals and communities that the office serves are not effectively represented.
Mitchell should insist on taking a leading role in the governance of Cook County’s criminal justice system. Whether those policies include the selection of judges to preside over criminal cases or the conditions of confinement in the Cook County Jail or the procedures governing pre-trial release, Mitchell must have a seat at the table. In that way, the interests of the clients will be brought to the fore when decision-makers are considering criminal justice practices and policies.
More concretely, the public defenders’ office should take the lead in criminal justice reform efforts. It should lead, first and foremost, in efforts to remove barbaric sentencing legislation from the books. No one knows better than public defenders and their clients the devastating short-term and long-term effects of unnecessarily long prison and probation sentences on clients and communities, particularly communities of color.
Provide the necessary resources
We ask too much of our assistant public defenders and provide them with too few resources. Each assistant public defender may represent hundreds of clients every year. The office lacks the necessary number of social workers, investigators, and the resources needed for experts. This is unsustainable and undermines the public defender’s ability to provide effective representation. Research shows that good and well-resourced public defenders do as well or a better job representing their clients than privately retained counsel.
When public defender’s offices have higher caseloads, their clients are more likely to be detained pretrial, and when they have lower caseloads, they are more likely to receive shorter sentences, according to a study by University of Illinois at Chicago researchers. The county should provide the office with the expertise and resources necessary to provide the best possible outcomes for defendants, their families, and their communities.
To assist in that effort, the public defenders’ office should make a concerted effort to gather and publish information about the work they do. Data matters. And for far too long, the public’s access to criminal justice data in Cook County has been shockingly lacking. For instance: How many people does each public defender represent on any given day? How many trials and pleas do Cook County public defenders handle? We don’t know. The public defender should post this information and other relevant data and statistics regarding the workload and impact of the office on its website. Providing this information to the public is critical to fully understand the public defender’s crucial role in securing justice for our communities.
Criminal justice reform is now front and center. The Cook County public defender’s office has an opportunity to make itself central to any real and sustained progress on civil rights and racial justice reform.
Thomas F. Geraghty is the Class of 1969 James B. Haddad Professor of Law at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and the director emeritus of the Bluhm Legal Clinic.
Maria Hawilo is a Distinguished Professor in Residence at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law and a former public defender in Washington, D.C.