The already strained Law Office of the Public Defender in Cook County is facing layoffs following the repeal of the county’s Sweetened Beverage Tax, known more commonly as the “soda tax.” That tax was expected to bring about $200 million in revenue to the county.
Without the penny-an-ounce tax, the office is bracing for 43 to 48 layoffs — including 37 lawyers — and eliminating 62 current vacancies.
The office would have to maintain its constitutionally mandated workload with a staff 105 to 110 people short of the recommended 680.
In mid-November, while waiting to see what the new county budget would have in store, Public Defender Amy Campanelli talked about the potential impact of those reductions and what her office is doing to fill the gap the pop tax didn’t.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CL: Have any layoffs happened yet?
Campanelli: No layoffs have happened yet. We had to present to Chairman [John P.] Daley — he is the chairman of the Finance Committee for the Cook County Board of Commissioners. He requested me to send him an updated plan that would decrease my budget by 10 percent for fiscal year ’18. And I had to give him that plan by November 3. I gave him that plan. And that plan, if I did have to decrease my budget by 10 percent [$7.6 million] in order to help solve this $200 million deficit the county is facing, I would have to eliminate all of my approximately 62 vacant positions.
The 62 vacancies are not all public defenders. I have support staff, investigators, you know, all sorts — Spanish interpreters, mitigators — so those 62 vacancies are across the board of everybody who works in my office.
CL: So worst-case scenario, when would or could that happen?
Campanelli: Well, it depends how fast they get a budget. Now they’re supposed to have a budget, I believe by [late November]. There have been times in Cook County where we haven’t had a budget until maybe February. That has happened in the past. Now I don’t know if this Board of Commissioners would allow that, but they may need some time. Because I’m just one piece of the pie, right? I’m just one agency.
CL: Is this directly connected to the soda tax you thought you were going to have?
Campanelli: Oh, definitely. That money was supposed to fill the gap. But again, I don’t know how people predict how much money will be brought in. How do you predict how much money people will [spend on soft drinks]? Will people buy soda? Will they not buy soda? How much money will we save? But the prediction was that if we had this tax it would help the county for, I think it was, the next three years. It would be $200 million the first year and then several million the next year.
At the same time, you can’t say, “Well, we just won’t do the work,” because I am constitutionally mandated. Everybody has a right, under the Sixth Amendment, to have counsel if they are charged with a crime and their liberty is at stake, or if their child is going to be taken away from them by the state. That’s a constitutional requirement that the county cannot disobey that requirement. They can’t just look the other way.
So you’re either going to appoint the public defender or you’re going to have to appoint private counsel. And if you appoint private counsel, it is going to cost you way more money.
To appoint just private attorneys on misdemeanor cases, court appointed private counsel, based on conservative estimates from national averages, court appointed counsel cost is about 530 percent higher than the cost of having a public defender — 530 percent. And then we looked at what it costs, what court appointed counsel are asking on the child protection cases where we represent the parents where their children might be taken away for neglect or abuse — 279 percent more.
If I don’t represent parents, or I decide not to handle misdemeanor cases, the county’s going to be on the hook for the money anyway, and it’s going to cost the county probably $50 million.
CL: When you look at the resources the state’s attorney’s office has versus the resources you have, even though it’s all coming from the same pot, has that been an issue or concern for you?
Campanelli: The MacArthur Foundation actually did a study of Cook County and found that my office defends 89 percent of the criminal cases, so I should have 89 percent of [State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s] budget. And therefore I should be funded at approximately $7 [million] to $10 million more than I am now.
And don’t forget even going above and beyond that, when [Foxx] gets a case, it’s already investigated. She’s got law enforcement. She’s got the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], the Chicago police, suburban police, the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives]. So she gets a case handed to her. When I get a case, I have to start from ground zero. I have to investigate the entire case. I need more investigators. I have to mitigate the case. I don’t just trust what’s on a piece of paper. I don’t trust what’s written on that paper at all.
I don’t trust that those witnesses have told the truth. I don’t trust that anything they say in those reports are true. I have to investigate it. I have to go look for myself. I have to interview the witnesses. I have to view the scene. I have to look at forensic evidence. I have to get my own expert witnesses. So yeah, we’re not on parity with them. We never have been. And we need to be.
But you can’t take the money from me and you can’t take the money from the state’s attorney either. We do the work. We’re bare bones. She’s bare bones. She’s cut her civil department.
We’re working courtrooms where there should be three people and there’s two or one, where clients are waiting all day to even talk to the lawyer. You see lines out the doors in our Markham courthouse and in our traffic courtrooms, in our misdemeanor courtrooms some days are so busy. If you have one person who’s expected to talk to up to 60 people, that’s crazy. Think about it. It’s crazy. You can’t effectively represent that many people. Things fall through the cracks.
And I’m not going to let that happen. I’m just not. I’m going to close divisions. Someone else will take the cases. Because I’m not going to be ineffective and my lawyers aren’t going to be ineffective.
Our goal is to make sure that every client is represented and that we are also making the prosecutors accountable and making the judges accountable for what they’re asking for. We are the only check and balance. We’re the ones who stop the wrongful convictions. We’re the check and balance every day on the prosecutor and the judge.
We force those who want to take away our clients’ liberty. We force them to be honest, we force them to be not overzealous and accountable for their actions. We stop police abuse. We bring issues like the Chicago code of silence in the Chicago Police Department, bring those to the forefront in the courtroom.
CL: Do you think this has been your biggest challenge to date?
Campanelli: The other challenge is the issue I’m having in the jail with the public indecency. That’s been quite a challenge over the last year and a half. It’s been getting worse. I’ve been trying to work with the sheriff on looking for solutions. But at the end of the day, it’s the sheriff’s obligation to keep my lawyers safe. I’ve just been sued and we’ll see how that goes. [In November, a group of assistant public defenders sued Campanelli, her office, Sheriff Tom Dart and his office, alleging they hadn’t done enough to protect female assistant public defenders from inmates in lockup exposing themselves and masturbating.] I represent these clients, and at the same time I have to keep my lawyers safe. They cannot go into a situation that is unsafe. And I am not the jailer.