Veteran defense lawyer nominated to be Cook County public defender
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Chicago Tribune by Steve Schmadeke
A veteran insider will be nominated Wednesday to be Cook County's next public defender, making her only the second woman to hold the post in its 85-year history if the County Board approves.
Amy Campanelli, who now manages the office's suburban operations, said in an interview Tuesday with the Tribune that her priorities will be encouraging the use of "therapeutic specialty courts" like drug court as well as community outreach to help students understand legal consequences.
She intends to visit every high school in Chicago, talking to students about a range of issues, including that they can be criminally charged just for riding in a stolen car or that if they are pulled over while driving and have even trace amounts of marijuana in their system they can be charged with DUI.
"I think it's a pretty exciting time to be in the criminal justice system," said Campanelli, 52, of La Grange. "Attitudes are changing to incarceration and how we treat nonviolent offenders and people addicted to drugs."
The public defender's office, with more than 500 attorneys and an annual budget of $61.6 million, provides free legal representation for defendants who can't afford it. Rita Fry was the first woman to serve as public defender for two terms starting in 1992.
Campanelli worked 11 years as an assistant public defender before she quit in 1998 to raise her children. By then she had risen from the juvenile division to first chair at a courtroom in the Criminal Court Building. The caseloads were too much, with her juggling 150 felony cases at a time, she recalled telling the author of the book "Courtroom 302" — the courtroom where she was assigned.
"My job was rewarding to me, but I didn't really see my youngest children," said the mother of three. "I worked late; I worked weekends; I went to the jail (to confer with clients). At one point I decided I had to make a choice. It was definitely one of the most difficult choices I'd made in my life."
Campanelli, who is married to attorney Patrick Campanelli, began working part time in her husband's office, and in 2003, then-Public Defender Edwin Burnette brought her back into the office as a felony trial supervisor.
Campanelli continued to defend cases even as she moved up the ranks of management — trying a case in the Maywood courthouse last year — but she said she will likely give that up once she's the public defender.
County Board President
Toni Preckwinkle, who made the nomination, praised Campanelli for her experience and commitment to reforming the criminal justice system. She was the insider from among three finalists recommended by a five-person committee led by Appellate Court Justice Joy Cunningham.
"Our goal is really to see that those who need it have a quality defense but also to reduce the number of people in the criminal justice system and the number of people in the jail," Preckwinkle said in a phone interview.
Campanelli, whose nomination is expected to be taken up by the County Board on April 1, will succeed Abishi Cunningham Jr., 68, a former judge and prosecutor whose term ends March 31. The public defender is appointed to a six-year term.
"You've got to have a lot of passion and dedication to do this because you're not going to have a lot of pats on the back," Cunningham said.
One of many pressing issues for the office continues to be that unionized assistant public defenders have worked without a contract since 2012. Some of them picketed outside the county building last year.
Even though many defendants who pass through the Leighton Criminal Court Building don't consider public defenders "real attorneys," Cunningham said, the office plays an extremely important role in making sure constitutional rights for poor defendants are upheld.
"It saddens me as well to hear a client say that we are penitentiary deliverers," Campanelli said in reference to an acronym that clients sometimes use for PD. "Or not a real lawyer or we're paid by the state, so we're not going to do a good job."
"We gain their trust through our actions, through our investigation, just working in the trenches," she said.
The sixth of seven children, Campanelli grew up in the western suburbs and graduated from the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Chicago-Kent College of Law.
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