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Amy Campanelli on Criminal Justice Reform: “It’s All About Poverty”

The Cook County public defender says her clients are victims of a broken system—one that must be fixed from the ground up.

Amy Campanelli  Photo: chris strong

You’ve been very critical of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Is that part of your strategy to spur reform?

I am not making any sort of political move. I highly respect Anita Alvarez. But my clients are victims, too. I just want her to remember that. As the public defender, I need to change people’s beliefs and the way they treat my clients in bond court, and the way they treat my clients during trial or at sentencing.

Do you worry your outspokenness will make working with stakeholders harder?

I hope that I will not have any backlash, because I’m not saying anything that we haven’t said already. Maybe it’s been behind closed doors. Everybody knows what I stand for. And I didn’t do it for the public. I’m doing it for my clients so they know their public defender is fighting for them and is trying to help this movement of criminal justice reform.

Do you wish the criminal justice system demonstrated a better understanding of mental illness?

Of course. Obviously, everybody needs training. From a defense standpoint, I need to educate the prosecutor if my client has mental health issues. I need to educate the judge. But if my client has a mental health issue and it’s treated, he won’t come back into the criminal justice system.

I see you’ve been clipping newspapers. What caught your eye today?

Sheila Bedi, a law professor at Northwestern, wrote a piece in the Sun-Times [that says] mandatory minimums give politicians and the police cover to lie to their constituents. You know, that they’re doing something—let’s be tough on crime, let’s make the mandatory minimums even harsher. But it doesn’t work. I understand they see people who were convicted felons, got out of prison, and then committed another crime. That’s not because the laws aren’t harsh; that’s because we didn’t do anything to solve the problem that got them into the criminal justice system in the first place.

And that problem is?

It’s all about poverty. It’s all about not giving opportunities to these children. I have this article in front of me by Father Pfleger that I pretty much read every day. I’m going to tear up now. Every time I look at this little boy, eating out of what looks like a dog dish, with filth all around him, I get so upset. Who can expect this little boy to grow up to be anything but full of hate, grief, shame, anger? This is 30 years ago, and nothing has changed. These are my clients. We cannot solve their problems in the criminal justice system. They have to be solved in the community.

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