In March, the Cook County Board unanimously voted to confirm Sharone Mitchell Jr. as the county’s new public defender. Mitchell, the former director of the Illinois Justice Project, had previously worked for the public defender’s office for six years as a trial attorney handling misdemeanor, felony, and civil cases. A Chicago native, Mitchell attended Morgan Park High School and worked at Cabrini Green Legal Aid while at DePaul Law School.
Among Mitchell’s priorities in the office are challenging the norm of pretrial detention, instituting more comprehensive data collection within the public defender service to inform policy change, and ensuring Chicago residents have robust public defense in the courtroom. Earlier this year, Mitchell and the Coalition to End Money Bond succeeded in getting the Pretrial Fairness Act passed through the Illinois State Legislature. Mitchell anticipates the public defender’s office will be centrally involved in implementing the bill, which mandates major changes including eventually abolishing cash bail in Illinois.
Mitchell was one of two finalists for the public defender position along with Emmanuel Andre, an attorney at the North Side Transformative Law Center, and was chosen by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to head the second-largest public defender service in the country for a six-year term. After the selection, Preckwinkle commended Mitchell as “a nationally recognized thought leader and policy advocate who has demonstrated the ability to lead regional reform efforts.” Mitchell’s predecessor, Amy Campanelli, was not on the shortlist to serve a second term. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What does “justice” mean to you?
Part of what justice means is that your outcome isn’t determined by where you come from, what you look like, your sexual orientation, the people you hang out with, and that we are making decisions based upon the facts that are proven in court. And that punishment doesn’t come just based upon allegations, it comes when there are findings made through due process.
I think it also means thinking about the norms, and thinking about whether those norms work for our communities. I was born in South Shore, I was raised in West Pullman, and I went to high school and currently live in Morgan Park. And when I drive down Michigan Avenue, down Halsted, down State Street, I don’t think, “Man, all my community needs is more police,” or “All my community needs is people serving longer prison sentences.” Nobody thinks that. Yet and still it has been the practice of our policymakers to offer that solution to our communities.
So for me, justice, I think is about really being serious about safety. It’s really being serious about confronting the issues that our communities are presented with. And not with solutions that only exist because that’s the way we’ve always done it, but solutions that actually work.
Why are you returning to the public defender’s (PD’s) office after working on the policy side of things at Illinois Justice Project (ILJP)?
I left the PD’s office not because I didn’t love the work—I loved every single day, going in and fighting for my brothers and sisters, my cousins, my friends, my family. It’s something I took great pride in. But as a public defender, I saw that we have a system that forces cases into plea bargains. Too often, I would have Assistant State’s Attorneys tell me that if I didn’t like the plea deal offer, to go change the law. I heard that over and over. At some point, I thought, maybe I should go and change the law. So I spent about five years helping to change the law, and along with the Coalition to End Money Bond and ILJP, I had a pretty successful run in the policy space. I was always going to come back home to the PD’s office; it was only a matter of when. And I’m super excited to be here.
What are your immediate plans for the PD’s office?
I have lots of thoughts and dreams about where the office should go, but it employs almost 700 people—we have so many experts and incredibly smart people who have fought in the trenches against mass incarceration and wrongful convictions and permanent punishment. I think I would be disrespectful and not strategic if I didn’t spend my first 100 days on a listening tour to talk to these people about the things we need to do to make the system better.
I would love to improve the way we advocate, the way we train, the way we collect data. One of the things I saw while working in the policy space is how data can change the way the system works. In the campaign to end cash bail, advocates relied on data to make these arguments. They relied on data to draw the case out that folks who are Black and criminally accused often get larger bonds than white accused people. So I think we can make really strong policy-based arguments when we have data, and do the same for internal decision-making.
That said, our day job is defending folks in court. So we have to walk a balance: we can’t be spending so much time collecting data or doing things that are external to actually being in court, kicking butt. But I’m really interested in how an improved data system collection, data collection, can help us improve the court system and help us improve our internal administration.
What are you hoping to focus on as in-person court reopens post-pandemic?
This is such an incredibly difficult time, because I’d like to say that we’re coming out of COVID in the next couple months, but we don’t really know how long it will last. So I think initially, our office stance makes sense that we need to be very, very careful of what we do over Zoom. Certainly, it makes sense for us to reevaluate our approaches to doing litigation on Zoom. All of this needs to be a balancing act. We can possibly get better outcomes for defendants from in-person litigation, but the pandemic means people’s cases have been held up. There might be opportunities to get people out of cages, or out of the supervision of the state, if we are a little bit flexible in our approach. So I’m really thinking about talking to our deputies and talking to our leadership, about how we can best approach the situation. We are also hearing a lot of concerning things about electronic monitoring, about new types of electronic monitoring, and you’ll be hearing from us shortly about our thoughts on that.
During the height of the pandemic, your predecessor called for mass release and decarceration. Problems plaguing the Cook County Jail, such as poor sanitation, overcrowding, and guard misconduct will continue after COVID-19 is gone. What do you see as your role in addressing them?
Every single day, our attorneys, investigators, support staff are trying to get people out of pretrial incarceration. The office wants to continue to be active in calls for reducing our jail population. We’ve become normalized to pretrial incarceration and the idea that somebody can be accused of a crime, and it’s completely normal that that person will start to be punished before any piece of evidence has been put in. It’s just something that we’ve been trained to accept. And I think that’s ridiculous. The Supreme Court thinks that’s ridiculous. In Salerno, the Court argued that pretrial incarceration should be the exception and not the rule. [Ed. note: in 1987, writing for the majority in United States v. Anthony Salerno and Vincent Cafaro, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote, “In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.]
So we fight that every day, and we will continue to look at creative ways to continue that work. And we’ll continue to work with our stakeholders in the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office to see if there are ways we can work together to reduce the jail population.
How do you think you’ll be able to work with State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to push for reforms?
It’s a dance, because every stakeholder in Cook County can find ways to work together to help reduce the jail population, and help bring more just outcomes to the system. I think the Pretrial Fairness Act was a great example of the State’s Attorney’s Office working together with the PD’s office and a vibrant coalition of organizers to get things done.
But that said, the nature of the beast is that we are in an adversarial situation. So I think we have to walk the balance of always fighting hard for our clients’ liberation, but taking advantage of opportunities to make policy-level changes to our clients’ benefit. As a person who has spent time working with SA Foxx, I’m excited to continue that relationship. As a person who has heard and talked to other stakeholders, I’m excited to work with them.
The success of the Pretrial Fairness Act depends, in large part, on implementation by adversarial groups like prosecutors and police. How do you plan to hold them accountable in your new office?
I think one of the benefits of hiring an advocate in our office is that they’re going to be willing to identify folks that are not doing it right, [and try] to push for doing better. The law is words on a paper, and certainly if we follow those words on the paper, we will get significantly better outcomes than we did in the past. But we’re only forty-nine percent of the way there.
One of the things about the Act is that decisions about whether somebody should be in or out are going to be much clearer. I’m excited to move toward a system in which that decision is made right, and it’s based on an evaluation of risk. And I do think that that will give folks on both sides a better understanding of how the system actually works and also more opportunity to hold stakeholders accountable if the system isn’t working the way the law dictates.
One issue that your predecessor’s office, along with that of the sheriff, was critiqued for was that not enough had been done to address the issue of sexual harassment of PDs by clients or others in lockup. Do you have any thoughts about how to address this issue going forward?
I have colleagues, folks I grew up with in the public defender’s office with, that have been subject to horrible sexual abuse, and it’s something we need to acknowledge. We haven’t talked about it enough. We have to prioritize the health and the safety of our attorneys, and we have to listen and react when people say they’re in trouble. When people tell us about their work environment, we have to be reactive to the things that they’re telling us and we can’t just react in a way that passes the buck.
Do you personally identify as a prison abolitionist?
I’ve never called myself an abolitionist—but I’ve never argued with abolitionists. I believe that the things that they point out about the system are completely correct. And I know that the solutions that we offer through the carceral state and through the legal system have not worked to keep my community safe. I think that too often, we have discussions about what abolition is, or what reform is, and that discussion gets in the way of really achieving substantive structural change that will stop people from being tortured, essentially, via incarceration. I think that the work we did with the Coalition to End Money Bond and the Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice is an example of folks who call themselves abolitionists and folks that don’t refer to themselves as abolitionists working together to significantly reduce the state’s power to incarcerate. So I don’t know how I would define myself. I just know that what abolitionists are saying about the system, I think is right.
Correction, April 19, 2021: The reply to a question about addressing sexual harassment was edited for clarity.
Kiran Misra primarily covers criminal justice and policing in Chicago for the Weekly. She last wrote about COVID-19 deaths at Cook County Jail. Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor. He last reported on overtime earned by cops who raided Anjanette Young’s home.