Cook County replaced its public defender. But she’s not done fighting yet.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli speaks last July 22 at a rally for the Defenders for All campaign outside the Richard J. Daley Center.

Amy Campanelli wanted a second term as the Cook County Public Defender. But since Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced two finalists for the position earlier this month — and the sitting public defender wasn’t among them — Campanelli has started to make plans for the future.

The fiery advocate who spent nearly 30 years in the public defender’s office, including the past six years at the helm, said she has considered the nonprofit sector or even putting her hat in the ring for a federal judgeship.

“I still feel like I have a lot of fight in me,” Campanelli told Injustice Watch in a wide-ranging exit interview on her second-to-last day on the job.

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She said she was proud of the work she did in the public defender’s office, even if it occasionally put her at odds with other justice system stakeholders, and that she has “no regrets” about her tenure. Read more from our exclusive conversation with Campanelli below.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Looking back on the past six years, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment as public defender?

It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing, but I would say that there’s two things that I tried to do when I became the public defender. One is to change the culture of the office and to become more client-centered, holistic in the way we represent clients. And that is a culture change. I wanted the whole office to sort of come together and look at, what is the most effective representation? How can we affect [our clients’] lives so that they are successful no matter what happens in the outcome of their case? Have we thought of them as a person with human needs and given them all the dignity and respect they deserve?

I guess the second thing is the police station unit. My entire career was obviously fighting law enforcement. Most of my career was at the felony courthouse, and even when I was at the juvenile courthouse it was always Chicago Police. And I knew for decades that Chicago Police officers lied in their police reports, that the science they used — the ballistics reports, fingerprints — was faulty science, that they hid evidence, they didn’t turn over exculpatory evidence. Besides the fact that they abused our clients on the street and in the police stations. I mean, I’ve had clients who have been shot and sat in a police station without having their wounds tended to until they gave a confession. That’s the kind of law enforcement we have in Chicago. And they’ve been doing that for decades and getting away with it.

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Now, with the lawyer in the room, we’re watching. We’re holding you accountable. We’re making sure you protect [our] clients no matter what they’re charged with, making sure you’re giving medical attention, making sure when the client says, “I want a lawyer,” and I’m there at the station, you let me in the door immediately. Immediately, because that’s the law. And we’re free of charge — anybody can call us. It doesn’t matter if you’re indigent, rich, poor, it doesn’t matter what part of Cook County. We go to every police station, and we hold the police accountable. And quite frankly, we bring credibility to the entire system by doing that. It’s that proactive approach that really brings not only credibility, but makes people feel safe and have more trust in the entire system. Not just in law enforcement, but in all of us — defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, all of us who play a part in this system — that has been, as everybody knows, very unfair and racist, and just a horrible system.

During your tenure, you’ve taken a strong public advocacy role, sometimes putting you at odds with other system stakeholders, including the judiciary and the state’s attorney’s office. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, you sued the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services over its visitation ban (a suit that your office lost). Why did you feel this was an important part of the role of the public defender?

Our clients, their voice needs to be at the table for reform. They’re the ones who go back into their communities, and anything that happens to me as a client, as someone who’s in the system, affects not only me, but it affects my children and my family, and then it affects my community.

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Just looking at bail alone. For six years, I’ve been talking about: We’ve been locking everybody up and letting out a few people. That’s not what the law ever said, ever. It said, “Everyone is bailable. Everyone has a right to be out and fight their case on their own.” But that’s not how the judges, how the community, and how the culture here in Cook County — or, quite frankly, the state of Illinois — was. Now, with enough people talking, enough advocacy and enough public defenders, and my voice at the table, it got people thinking, “No, it’s only the few who need to be locked up. And the rest should be released.” And guess what? The public’s still safe. And guess what? The outcomes are better in their cases. They’re sentenced to a more appropriate sentence. They don’t lose their job. They don’t lose their family. They don’t continue in this downward spiral. They don’t commit more crimes.

So it doesn’t keep us safe to just punish and be hateful and be vindictive in our laws. And that’s what the public defender needs to talk about. Because the prosecutor is talking about prosecuting and putting everybody away. There’s progression there, thank God. There’s some progression, slowly, from the prosecutor’s office. But I’d like to see Kim Foxx say, “I’m not going to try any children as an adult anymore.” Why are we trying children as adults? I committed a homicide, or an aggravated hijacking, so now I’m an adult. I magically became an adult because of the crime I committed. How ridiculous is that?

Looking back on the last six years, do you have any regrets? Are there things that you wish you had gotten a chance to do that you didn’t? Or things that you did that you would have done differently?

I don’t really have any regrets. I knew that I might only have six years. I knew that coming in. And I knew I had to get a lot done. And maybe I tried too hard. I’ve been working on this immigration unit that I now have for three and a half years — finally got the funds. The police station unit was about a year and a half before we got it, and then when it really got up and running, it was two and a half years. Things take time. Our legislative agenda — I knew I wanted the habitual offender law changed. I’ve been working on that for years. I got that changed in this new crime bill.

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So laws have to be changed. Relationships had to be built. It takes time to build relationships with all these other people who affect policy and laws and the way we do things. But really, I don’t have any regrets. I’m glad that I stepped up to sue the Department of Children and Family Services during COVID. COVID doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your job, but they thought it did. I’m glad I sued the Chicago Police Department. It came about through the protests, but I knew for 58 years they hadn’t been following the law and giving people phone calls.

So these basic things I knew I needed to get changed. And I knew it took time. So maybe I did too much, too fast. Change is hard. I hate when people tell me that, “Change is hard.” Change is necessary. You don’t wait to change until people won’t want to change. You’ve got to change when the timing is right. So regrets? No. Like I said, I think maybe some things might have come too fast. And maybe my office wasn’t quite ready for all this change. But at the same time, I also held my office accountable.

What would you have done if you had been given a second term?

One thing is to increase our visibility in the community, so that when someone gets arrested they call us. We got a grant recently, we’re working on a social media campaign to get more people aware that if you’re arrested, you need to call this number to call our office. I’ve been to so many different platforms — churches, events, parades, all these things — and I’m always talking about this issue. And I even talked to people who are victims. I say, “Look, if you’re a victim of a crime, I understand you’re calling the police. And then the next phone call should be to me. Because if it was your son or daughter, you’d want them to have a lawyer.” And so that’s one thing.

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The immigration unit, I wanted to see that through. We’ve got a new bill pending — we testified in the Senate last week — to get us to go into immigration court. It’s not just representing the noncitizens I currently have who are in the criminal system and following them into their immigration system if they are looking at a detention by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or removal proceeding. I want to represent those current clients, but also fill in the gaps. There’s so many noncitizens who are not represented in immigration court. I wanted to see that through, so that eventually we could get it to the United States Supreme Court to make it the right to counsel. Just like you have the right to counsel if your liberty is going to be taken on a crime, you should have the right to counsel if you’re going to be detained or removed from the country. We could do that.

And I wanted to see the culture change a little bit more. See if we could do more holistic work, hire more social workers. I beefed up my mitigation department. I started a mental health unit, because so many of our clients have mental health issues. And when you can delve into the issues of the clients, the outcomes are better.

Perhaps the biggest controversy of your term was the lawsuit filed by some of the female public defenders who said you didn’t do enough to protect them from sexual harassment in the jail. (The county settled that suit last year for $14 million). Is there anything you could have done differently to protect your female employees from harassment?

I did absolutely everything I could in my power as the public defender to protect my lawyers. I am not the sheriff. These assaults occurred from clients who were behaving badly when they were in the lockup or in the jail. Obviously, that is the sheriff’s purview: to keep the lockup safe, and to keep the jail safe. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with his staff, how many letters I wrote him. We sent lawyers into the different divisions where we saw the clients who were behaving badly come from. We talked to the men in there and said, “Look, please stop doing this. These are your lawyers. You’re going to get a new case. Even if it’s just a misdemeanor case, on your third time you’re going to be labeled as a sex offender if you get convicted. Please stop doing this.”

I did everything I could. I’m not the jailer. I have no control. So, I don’t regret anything I did. I regret that they sued me, actually, in addition to suing [Cook County Sheriff] Tom Dart. And I think I was very unfairly treated in that lawsuit, quite frankly.

What’s your advice for incoming Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, Jr.? And what do you think are the biggest challenges he faces coming into this job?

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It’s the same challenges that I had. It’s going to be budget always, especially when there’s difficult times. I don’t know what’s going to come out of Covid, and if they’re going to ask him to cut his budget. Every time they asked me, I said “No, I’m not doing it.” And I didn’t. I didn’t have any furloughs; the state’s attorney did. Nor did I have any layoffs. I believe the chief judge had layoffs and furloughs. I never did. Because I said, “No, you’ve un-funded us for decades. My office cannot be un-funded.” Because guess what? We are the voice of criminal justice reform. We are the stories on the ground. You entered an ordinance four months ago or five months ago saying you believe in reform. You believe that Black lives matter. You believe that non-citizens matter. But then you un-funded the public defender’s office? That’s contradictory.

So he’s got to push back on that. He’s got to think about the clients first and then everybody else, because the only reason to be a public defender is for the clients. The only reason, quite frankly, to be a lawyer. You aren’t a lawyer without a client. And the client comes to you with all sorts of issues. And that’s why you’re a lawyer: to solve those problems and get the best outcomes you can. So he’s going to have those fights, and I hope he can hold strong when others want him to stay silent.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know yet. I’m looking at some nonprofits. I’m taking a little time off, probably most of April. But I still feel like I have a lot of fight in me. I’ve been doing this work for 33 years. I’ve seen a lot. I’ve gotten so much education and learning from being the public defender. And I hope the platform that I have made — not only for myself, but for public defenders across the country who, quite frankly, are trying to emulate what I have done in my police station unit, my immigration unit, the culture change. I hope that I can continue to support this office, however I can. There’s talk of maybe looking at being a judge, and judges can do a lot of work, too. I would love to bring my skill set and my love of problem-solving courts and restorative justice. We need that in the federal courts. They don’t have diversion and deflection in the federal court system. I’d love to bring that to the federal court system.

I’m reaching out to the Biden administration, trying to support the idea of bringing back the Office for Access to Justice under the Department of Justice, which was decimated under President Trump. We need that office, and the mission of that office is to help public defense across the country. I’d love to help in that arena, where I could work with the federal administration to really make changes for public defense across the country. So I’ve reached out, and we’ll see. I think that’s where my talents lie.

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