Rethinking Justice

An unemployed veteran with mental health issues commits a nonviolent crime in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, which could put them behind bars for years. Instead, they visit the Cook County Veterans Treatment Court and walk out under an individualized program to stay out of the criminal system.

The veterans court is one of several groundbreaking reforms and programs that Amy Campanelli (LAW ’87) created as Cook County public defender from 2015–2021. Courts specializing in mental health and drug-related offenses were also brought to a department that is charged with legally defending people who cannot afford private attorneys.

Now, Campanelli has joined Lawndale Christian Legal Center as vice president of restorative justice, where she uses her decades of courtroom experience to guide her staff, and clients, toward a better future. She knows what programs can succeed and can give a second chance to those who are trapped in the legal system. Beyond providing representation in court, the legal center has partnered with nonprofit and government groups to provide housing, employment, and other basic needs to help people escape the criminal cycle.

“[The legal center] is meeting the social and justice needs in the community,” Campanelli says. “We provide the legal and social needs of everyone we represent. Meeting legal needs is important, but social needs are just as important.”

Lester Finkle has worked with Campanelli on and off since 1987, the year that Campanelli became a public defender. Finkle served as chief of staff during Campanelli’s term as Cook County public defender, and he says that he knew Campanelli’s drive would bring changes to Chicago’s legal system.

“She was always very enthusiastic in that she did everything possible for the client. She was the one who put herself on the line, who was there for the client,” Finkle says.

This story was featured in the summer 2022 issue of Illinois Tech Magazine. You can read the full story on the Illinois Tech Magazine website

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