County names new public defender — ‘progressive,’ pragmatist, ‘administrator of justice’ and ‘good guy’
Mitchell described how he found his calling as a public defender: “One of the first days on the job, I went to lockup and came across this kid I went to grade school with. He couldn’t get past how someone who came from where we came from was on the other side of the bars in a suit and tie, instead of a tan jumpsuit.”
Sharone Mitchell Jr. became Cook County’s new public defender on Thursday, winning unanimous approval from the County Board after promising to serve as an “engine for progressive system change’’ in the county’s handling of criminal justice issues.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s personal choice for the job, Mitchell had worked as a trial attorney in the public defender’s office from 2009 until being selected as director of the Illinois Justice Project in 2016.
As director of the advocacy organization, Mitchell was instrumental in helping to craft the criminal justice bill that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law last month. Mitchell was especially involved in the provision eliminating cash bail in the state.
His role in helping draft the legislation drew concerns from two members of the County Board, although both still voted for him, including Republican Commissioner Sean Morrison, who called Mitchell a “good guy.”
A lifelong resident of Cook County, Mitchell, 37, was raised in the West Pullman neighborhood of Chicago.
Appearing emotional during a committee hearing the day before his appointment sailed through, Mitchell described how he found his calling as a public defender.
“One of the first days on the job, I went to lockup and came across this kid I went to grade school with. He couldn’t get past how someone who came from where we came from was on the other side of the bars in a suit and tie, instead of a tan jumpsuit,” Mitchell said Wednesday.
“I went back home that day, I went back to one of my class photos, I went through the kids in the picture. And counting the number [of incarcerated], it became crystal clear to me the impact, the horrible, horrible impact the administration of justice has had on our communities. I vowed right then to be part of the solution.”
Appearing before the committee on Wednesday, Mitchell stressed his intention to use the public defender’s office as a vehicle of the change demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We must be informed by the movement that has demanded a revamping of how we approach the justice system,” Mitchell said. “And make no mistake, left to its own devices the legal system will continue to produce results steeped in the legacy of mass incarceration, wrongful convictions, and permanent punishments.”
During the hearing, Morrison and Commissioner Frank Aguilar — a former Republican state legislator chosen by Democrats to fill a vacancy last year — criticized Mitchell for his involvement in the criminal justice bill, alleging it didn’t receive enough input from law enforcement.
But Morrison, who also serves as chair of the Cook County Republican Party, vowed to support Mitchell despite his reservations.
“I’m a pretty, pretty square law and order type guy. But I think law and order starts with due process,” Morrison said Wednesday. “And I espouse the saying that better a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man goes to jail. And that’s what I think you’ll ensure as public defender.”
Mitchell received unequivocal praise from the rest of the board during Wednesday’s hearing, Commissioner Bridget Gainer saying he had the “right level of idealism and pragmatism.”
Mitchell’s appointment came after Preckwinkle had not recommended extending the tenure of Public Defender Amy Campanelli, who said in December she would seek another term to “continue to advocate that the criminal justice system be just for all.”
The Board paid out $14 million last November to settle a lawsuit alleging that Campanelli and Sheriff Tom Dart hadn’t done enough to protect the attorneys they employed from sexual harassment by the hands of their incarcerated clients.
Kevin Ochalla, President of the Cook County Public Defenders’ Local 3315 union, spoke in favor of Michell’s appointment, but emphasized that he needs to protect his employees from abuse.
“No one should have to suffer harassment in the workplace. And when it happens, it needs to be corrected immediately, the responsibility must be taken,” Ochalla said at the hearing. “It is the union’s position that Mr. Mitchell understands these concerns.”
At a news conference following Thursday’s County Board meeting, Preckwinkle denied that the lawsuit against Campanelli had any impact on the selection process and said Mitchell “would be an effective administrator of justice” in protecting his employees from any form of harassment.
Mitchell will begin his six-year term in April.