This interview with Amy Campanelli was conducted by Geoffrey Burkhart, Attorney/Project Director with the American Bar Association. It was published as a "Person of Interest" feature in the July/August 2015 issue of the CBA record. You can read the interview in the CBA Record here

Congratulations on your appointment as Cook County Public Defender. What will you do first?

Right now I’m filling leadership positions. I’m also enhancing our training program. We have a young office, so we’ll be doing heavy training on trial skills, mitigation, and collateral consequences. Later this year, I plan on launching our Department of Community Affairs. We’ll go to local high schools, explain what we do, teach kids about their legal rights, and address issues like sexting and cyberbullying.

Most recently you were the Deputy Assistant for Suburban Operations. Is it difficult to step away from the courtroom?

I’ve been in management since 2003. When I was in charge of Suburban Operations, most of my time was spent out of the courtroom, so this isn’t a big change in that sense. I made an effort to be in court as often as possible, and I plan to do that in this position. But when I talk about the people we represent, I still call them my clients, because as the Public Defender they are my clients. I have a duty to protect their rights and to ensure that their lawyers are well trained.

There’s a long-standing myth among clients that public defenders aren’t attorneys. How did that start?

I’m not sure how it started. It may stem from our services being free. A lot of people also distrust government agencies. But we chip away at that myth every day by fighting hard for our clients and earning their respect. Our community outreach program will also help educate the public about who we are and what we do, but it takes a while.

Is the Public Defender an equal partner in the justice system in Cook County?

I think so. I’ve been doing this a long time, and the other people in the justice system know me. I was at a meeting today with judges, prosecutors, and police, and was definitely treated as an equal partner in this system. We want parity with prosecutors, and the public shouldn’t want it any other way.

You’re entering this position at an interesting time for criminal justice. Do you think the criminal justice system will look different in the coming years?

This is an exciting time to be here. We can really make a difference. Governor Rauner wants to reduce the prison population in Illinois. I’m right there with him, so long as it leads to us treating people fairly. Right now, it’s costing too much money, and it’s not protecting the public. President Preckwinkle is urging the Illinois General Assembly to end automatic transfer of juveniles to adult courts. I agree. Children don’t stop being children just because they’ve committed a crime—they still need to be treated as children. Plus, we have to have faith in our judiciary. We need to allow our judges to use discretion. Automatic transfer laws and mandatory sentence enhancements take that discretion away. 

How did you become a public defender?

I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a lawyer. I was a leader in my high school, and I always liked public speaking. I thought I would go into international commercial law. I speak French, and it seemed interesting. But I worked for an attorney in that area during law school and knew I wanted something else. Then I had a chance to work on a serious murder case while clerking with the Cook County Public Defender. I knew then that I wanted to stay at the office.

Are there any other lawyers in your family?

Other than my husband, I’m the only one. He and I met at a softball game: defenders versus prosecutors. I have a sister who worked at Misericordia, another who is a special education teacher, and two brothers who work with computers. But my parents certainly affected my decision to become an attorney. They taught us from a young age that everyone should be treated equally—that we should speak out instead of remaining silent and say uncomfortable truths. My mom lost a few friends over the years when talking about social justice issues, but she was right.

You took a leave from the office a few years ago. Why did you leave?

When I left, I had 150 felony cases at any given time. About 25|PERCENT| of those cases were drug cases, but that caseload also included sexual assaults and death penalty work. We’d have jury trials until 8 or 9 at night and do bench trials during lunch breaks—I was never home. My youngest child was two years old and I wanted to have another child. It was taking a toll on our family, so I decided to take a break. I was away from the office from 1998 through 2003. I still worked on cases with my husband during that time, but I spent a lot of time with my family.

Justice Ginsburg recently said that perhaps men and women can have it all, but not all at once.

I think that’s right. Attorneys, especially women, are expected to run households while practicing law. I know what it’s like: you don’t want to give up your career. You can do both, but none of us are Wonder Woman. I’m mindful of that when I’m setting policies in our office.

Are public defender caseloads better now?

They’re better now. We had only two attorneys per courtroom at 26th Street up until 2000. Now, most courtrooms have three attorneys, so our caseloads aren’t what they used to be. Still, the caseloads for some felony attorneys are creeping up toward 100 cases or more. We have no caseload limits in Cook County. There’s no question that when caseloads are too high, they take longer to resolve, increasing the time a client spends in jail. When that happens, everyone suffers—the client, his family, and our community.