On March 11, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle nominated Amy Campanelli to serve as the new Cook County Public Defender. Campanelli, a 23-year veteran of the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, is currently serving as the Deputy of Suburban Operations for the Law Office, where she manages more than 150 assistant public defenders, oversees all specialty courts, and acts as a liaison between suburban police departments, the Cook County Department of Corrections and the Sex Offender Management Board for the State of Illinois. Commissioners are expected to consider Campanelli’s appointment during the April 1st County Board meeting.
At the accompanying press conference, President Preckwinkle stated, “I am pleased to nominate Amy Campanelli to this critically important position. Our criminal justice system relies on the vigorous defense of the accused by the men and women of the Public Defender’s Office. Throughout her nearly 30 years practicing law, Amy has proven herself to be a relentless advocate for her clients. She is passionate about the work of the Public Defender’s Office, and fully committed to our ongoing efforts to reform the County’s criminal justice system.”
Campanelli is a mental health specialist and has conducted numerous trainings for attorneys. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and her JD from the Kent College of Law. Campanelli worked 11 years as an assistant public defender before leaving the office in 1998. In 2003, then-Public Defender Edwin Burnette brought her back into the office as a felony trial supervisor.
“In over two decades of service as an Assistant Public Defender, Amy Campanelli has established herself as a tireless advocate for her clients and outstanding leader of law office personnel. Her experience at every level of the office has given her the ability to develop expertise in related criminal justice areas and work collaboratively with stakeholders, leading to appointments representing the office on various boards, professional settings and trainings. Her demonstrated commitment to the office and the people of Cook County is legend. I commend President Preckwinkle for her nomination of Amy Campanelli as the Cook County Public Defender,” said Edwin Burnette, former Cook County Public Defender from 2003-2009.
Campanelli was one of three finalists identified by a review committee appointed by President Preckwinkle in December 2014 to help select Cook County’s next Public Defender. The search process has been outlined previously on this blog here.
I had a chance to speak with two members of the Review Committee, who interviewed and selected public defender candidates for President Preckwinkle’s consideration. Patrick Covington, Co-Founder of the Alumni Association Network, said, “[Amy Campanelli] stood out to me because she was so involved with all the alternative programs like drug court and mental health court.” He added, “she was aware of all those and she’s involved in all those – she covers a lot of ground.” When asked about what qualities she exhibited that seemed well-suited for the office, he said, “she’s not afraid to challenge people, and I think President Preckwinkle is looking for someone who will challenge the office and push it forward.”
Professor Jeffrey Urdangen, director of Northwestern Law School’s Center for Criminal Defense, had this to say about Campanelli: “She impressed me with her commitment to indigent defense. Her genuine, apparently to-the-bone passion for representing the underdog. It came out very naturally.” When asked about what he feels she brings to the office, Professor Urdangen said, “I’m just really confident that she’s going to do great things. I hope she makes the office of the public defender more public. I think she’s got all the tools to be a wonderful public face for the office and for the people they represent.”
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Amy Campanelli said her priorities will be encouraging the use of “therapeutic specialty courts” like drug court as well as community outreach to students in High Schools throughout the city to understand their rights and legal consequences of certain actions.
“It’s an exciting time to be involved in the criminal justice system,” said Campanelli. “Attitudes are changing regarding incarceration for nonviolent offenders, the mentally ill, and people addicted to drugs. I will make sure the Cook County Public Defender’s Office is part of this change.”
Cook County Jail averages a population of about 8,500 inmates on any given day, many of whom have mental illnesses and/or substance abuse problems.
In an interview with Progress Illinois, Campanelli said. “we will continue diligently to work with our mentally ill in our mental health courts. I’d like to see some of those get expanded. We do not have one in every district. I’d like to see one in Bridgeview district – they need to be serviced. I want my mentally ill clients in treatment, not Cook County Jail. I also want them to stay out of jail when they get out.”
In addition to problem facing the clientele, the office itself faces management hurdles. For example, the unionized assistant public defenders have worked without a contract since 2012, and some of them picketed outside the county building in 2014.
Speaking at a press conference President Preckwinkle stressed the importance of the position. “In order for our criminal justice system to be fair and just, public defenders must vigorously defend poor people.” She added, “in my time as Cook County Board President and a Chicago Alderman before that, I’ve seen that being charged with a series of crimes, even if they’re minor offenses, can destroy a person’s life.”
Campanelli, whose nomination is expected to acted on by the County Board on April 1, would succeed Abishi Cunningham Jr., 68, a former prosecutor and judge whose term ends March 31. The public defender is appointed to a six-year term.
Ali Abid is a staff attorney and criminal justice policy analyst at Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, this and other blog entries by Ali can be found here.