A Conversation with Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli

Flag of Cook County by Daniel X O’Neil/ CC BY 2.0

Flag of Cook County by Daniel X O’Neil/CC BY 2.0

By Lucy Ritzmann

When I was seventeen, I participated in a program that taught high school students about law and was able to use that opportunity to observe criminal court proceedings. The experience was both thrilling and devastating. I was poignantly aware that I was observing the worst day of many people's lives. The trials had an almost theatrical quality - the testimony was more outrageous and the consequences were more serious than any TV show can convey. But there was one quiet, fleeting moment that occurred just outside the doors of the courtroom that stuck in my head as one of the most upsetting things that I saw. I remember sitting on a bench in the hallway and seeing a boy not much older than me sitting a little further down. A woman approached him in a suit, introduced herself, said a few words and together, they walked into the courtroom. I asked my professor about the interaction and she explained to me that that was a public defender meeting her client for the first time moments before arguing for his freedom. The more I considered that, the more upset it made me: it was unfair to the boy, who is victim to a system in which one can only have a comprehensive defense if you can afford it. It was also unfair to the lawyer who was trying to fight for many boys like him without time, resources or support.

This is an issue that has only worsened. In 2017, Pew Research published an article in which they spoke to public defenders around the country who said that they had reached a critical point in which they were so overworked and underfunded that they could not help all their clients. This week, I spoke to Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli about her role in the community and the challenges she and her colleagues face.

Public Defender Campanelli was a public defender for 27 years. She then briefly worked for a private firm when her children were young and spoke briefly about the difficult choice between her family and her clients. She returned to the Public Defender's Office five years later in 2003 and she was sworn in as the Tenth Public Defender of Cook Country in 2015. She is only the second woman to hold this position. She told me that she is in charge of approximately 700 staff members, 470 of which are attorneys, and that they are in the process of hiring more. She described her role as making “sure that each person follows the mission of the office which is to their best of their ability and to protect their rights, their liberties and their dignity in doing so."

I asked Public Defender Campanelli if she had experienced the intense workload that public defense is infamous for. She described her early career: "When I was a felony trial assistant in the 80s and 90s, I had way too many cases at any given time for years—I would have to be extremely organized." She had to work constantly, which led to her difficult decision to leave the office and work for a private organization when her children were young. She told me that she ensures that her lawyers do not have workloads like that. Public Defender Campanelli believes that "my huge task in this office is managing the budget so we can give the best representation to every client." She acknowledges that some of her lawyers still have too many cases and that she is currently hiring in order to relieve some of that load. She also believes that her initiative for bond reform, also known as bail reform, which is the effort to move judges away from requiring a money bail for a person to be released from jail while he or she awaits a court hearing, will help as lawyers will spend less time trying to get into the jails just to talk to their clients [1].

When I asked her about the article from Pew Research, she agreed, stating "we are at a critical point." She recognizes that the Cook County Public Defender’s Office is in a much better position in terms of resources than many other offices, where clients have to wait for weeks in custody until they can speak with a lawyer or, in some places, don't get a public defender at all; she aptly deems this "a crisis." She noted the importance of working with organizations like the ACLU to get the attention of the federal government to put pressure on states to give more attention to their Public Defenders offices. She also believes that the participation of the community is essential: the community must be educated on their rights because it is necessary for each person to have someone on their side when they are at a police station. She believes “if the community steps up and says, ‘We demand that you have enough public defenders. We have a right under the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Illinois...to have counsel at every critical stage of the process. You are violating our rights,’ then state governments will make change.”

Change and reform was a huge topic of our conversation. Public Defender Campanelli is well aware of the difficulties and flaws that exist in the judicial system and she is making significant efforts to reform it. She considers herself "someone that people can look to in the community for leadership in criminal justice reform." She came into office looking to make things "more client-centered than lawyer-centered." She told me about a number of reform projects that she is working on from bond court reform to increasing diversion programs, which is when a person goes to a rehabilitation center rather than a prison [2]. Her latest endeavor is the "police station representation unit," which ensures attorneys are at police stations and available to any arrestee free of charge [3].

Public Defender Campanelli also spoke about two major, systemic changes that she is pushing for. First, she spoke about the necessity of pretrial detention reform, which can include bail reform and stricter schedules to limit the time a person spends in jail before going to court, claiming there needs to be "a huge culture shift, a huge change in the minds of all of us in the system" when it comes to holding someone before trial [4]. She commended Chief Judge Evans for "pushing his judges to think that everyone should be released," unless they are a danger or a flight risk; she cites that "everyone is innocent until proven guilty."  Public Defender Campanelli is proud that currently in Cook County "5,800 people [are] in jail down from 10,500 in 2014." The second issue we discussed is "holding Chicago police accountable who are not following the law." Public Defender Campanelli says she has won many individual cases of police misconduct but has never seen systemic change until now. She knows that the community must be the one to demand the change, and she is glad to see it happening. She notes that when discussing reform in this issue, "public defenders always need to be at the table because we know what the clients go through."

Before the interview, I expected that I would end the conversation feeling at least equally stressed about the situation public defenders and their clients face in this country. While there certainly is a lot of work to be done, it was so encouraging to speak to Public Defender Amy Campanelli and hear that not only is her office here in Cook Country doing impressive work to make the system better, but they are also advocating for other public defenders and pushing for systemic change. Her office is leading the much needed charge, and I am excited to see the things they achieve.

Lucy Ritzmann is a second-year in the College pursuing a double major in Law, Letters, & Society and Political Science.


[1] Wykstra, Stephanie. "Bail Reform, Which Could save Millions of Unconvicted People from Jail, Explained." Vox. October 17, 2018. Accessed January 08, 2019. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2018/10/17/17955306/bail-reform-criminal-justice-inequality. [2] Weise-Pengelly, Carrie A., and Harry R. Dammer. "Diversion." Encyclopædia Britannica. June 06, 2016. Accessed January 08, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/diversion.
[3] Schmadeke, Steve. "Arrestees to Get Access to Lawyers Free of Charge at Chicago Police Stations." Chicago Tribune. March 16, 2017. Accessed January 08, 2019. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-free-attorneys-police-custody-met-20170314-story.html. [4] "Incarceration's Front Door: The Misuse Of Jails In America." Accessed January 8, 2019. https://law.yale.edu/system/files/area/center/liman/document/workshop16_readings_class08.pdf.