An NAPD Interview with Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli
This article is an NAPD interview with NAPD member Amy Campanelli, the leader of the Cook County Public Defender's Office in Chicago, IL. It supplements her interview with Geoffrey Burkhart, Attorney/Project Director with the American Bar Association. That interview was published as a "Person of Interest" feature in the July/August 2015 issue of the CBA record.
NAPD: Tell us about the office – the number of attorneys and other professional staff, the number of offices.
Amy: The Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender has 458 attorneys (plus 24 attorney supervisors plus 13 attorney chiefs, plus 6 attorney deputies, plus first assistant and chief of staff) for a total of 503 attorneys; 59 investigators, including investigator managers; and 117 support staff, including support staff managers. We have offices in nine Chicago locations and five suburban locations, for a total of 14 work sites.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
Amy: First, I try to lead by example. Even though I am now the Public Defender, I am still handling cases in the trial court. Second, I firmly believe that leadership must come from the top down. As a result, when I remain positive and stand firm in the unwavering support of my clients, I expect that the managers and attorneys under me to carry that philosophy throughout their representation.
NAPD: What is your office's greatest strength?
Amy: Our strength lies in the two Ds – dedication and diversity. The attorneys, investigators and support staff are absolutely dedicated to helping our clients both in court and out of court. They embrace the clients, help them whenever possible, and see them as human beings who need both representation and assistance. But the second D is also important. Our staff is diverse, with members coming from every racial, ethnic, and cultural background. This gives us strength, since it helps us understand our clients’ concerns. We are not cookie cutter lawyers who think only one way. Our diversity lets us look at every client’s issues from a variety of perspectives.
NAPD: What are your office's biggest barriers?
Amy: The biggest barrier is financing and resources. Money is limited. We want to do so much for every client, but cannot. If I could, I would have twice as many staff as we now have, but that is not feasible. The County and President Preckwinkle are fantastic to us, but it is the nature of our practice that we always need more for our clients. There are so many services I wish I could offer my clients, but I have to balance my hopes and dreams with what can practically be accomplished. Another barrier is the problem of perception by the public and our clients. They believe that since our services are free to them, they lack value. They fail to recognize that the staff of my Office are among the most finely honed criminal defense professionals in the country.
NAPD: You speak in the CBA interview of caseloads creeping up in the office, and having no caseload limits. What plans do you have to keep caseloads under control?
Amy: In our new budget season, I am requesting more assistant public defenders and other personnel to help with these caseloads. At this time, I am not advocating a legislative solution, such as caseload caps, but that is a possibility for the future.
NAPD: You also spoke of handling 150 felony cases at a time, including death penalty work. How did that affect you? Does that help shape what you want to accomplish as the Public Defender?
Amy: My personal history absolutely shapes what I want to accomplish as the Public Defender. In 1998, when I was burdened with that caseload, which included all serious felony cases, and several death penalty cases, it became almost unmanageable. To represent all my clients effectively, I needed time, and that delayed the resolution of many of my clients’ cases. As the Public Defender, I never want to see that situation repeated. Because of my experiences, I hope to educate my funding source that sufficient resources are needed so that all clients are properly served.
NAPD: What are your top priorities?
Amy: In no particular order, my priorities are: (a) Pursuing bond court reform, so that no one is in jail awaiting trial for a non-violent charge. (b) Expanding the use of specialty and therapeutic courts, to help our veterans, the victims of sex trafficking, those with mental health needs, those with substance abuse issues, and the homeless. (c) Reaching out to the community and to our client base so they understand the importance of the work we do, and how they have a constitutional right to legal representation whenever they are accused of committing a crime. (d) And expanding our training of all staff in my Office. Training was neglected the last few years, and it has to be reinvigorated. The professional development of my entire office is a must.
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your office?
Amy: As the indisputable best criminal defense law firm in the country.
NAPD: What else do you want your fellow defenders to know about you and your office?
Amy: I want them to know that we are here to help, but also that we need their help. The legal community is its own self-contained village. And in that village, everyone must help everyone else. We are experts in the field of criminal defense, and can help other attorneys and defenders with our years of institutional knowledge and experience. But we need their help, also, by having them raise their voices to their political representatives and community leaders that the Public Defender needs the resources to ensure proper representation, and end indiscriminate incarceration of minorities and the poor. I once heard a saying that helping and being helped are cut from the same cloth. We represent our clients to the best of our ability, but also ask the legal community for its help so we can help others.