Lawndale Christian Legal Center has been the subject of a summary report by the Office of the Independent Inspector General of Cook County. The report alleges that the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender improperly disclosed client information to LCLC.
These are serious allegations, so we take them seriously. Our mission is to support juveniles and adults in the justice system, and we never waver from that.
This statement provides relevant facts and context that the IG report does not include and the steps we are taking to address the allegations.
In September 2017, LCLC Executive Director Cliff Nellis and then-Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli discussed a groundbreaking project: The opportunity to work with the University of Chicago to study outcomes for youth and emerging adults represented by the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender versus the outcomes of people represented by LCLC’s holistic community-based model.
The goal of this study is to compare traditional public defense to LCLC’s holistic community-based model that connects people to services for jobs, housing, education, mental health treatment, substance-use treatment and other needs. The study will compare the legal and social outcomes obtained by both models of defense to research new best practices in holistic community-based defense.
The hope is that this study would catalyze the creation of specialized youthful defender units locally that could set an example for the nation. Holistic legal defense with social supports can end the arrest-jail cycle for many people. When integrated legal-social supports work for one individual, we have stronger and safer communities.
The study is being conducted by the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab, a nationally renowned leader in research. LCLC has worked with the University of Chicago and its Institutional Review Board to design and implement this study from the very beginning. In addition, LCLC shared this opportunity in numerous meetings with various Cook County stakeholders.
The Law Office of the Public Defender set forth a directive to its staff that every client would need to provide informed consent before being referred to LCLC for the evaluation. Once referred to LCLC, LCLC met with each person to give them the opportunity to voluntarily participate in the evaluation. Prior to the global pandemic that began in March 2020, every participant in the study signed written consent forms acknowledging they understand the purpose of the evaluation, how it works, and that they are voluntarily participating in the study. A COVID protocol was added to the consent process when social distancing orders prevented LCLC from meeting with each client in person, and written consent forms were dated and completed over the phone with these clients. In addition, every client who works with LCLC signs documents agreeing to be represented by LCLC.
Only after obtaining consent, each client would enter a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT), the gold standard for study design and data analysis. In the RCT process, the client would either continue being represented by the Law Office of the Public Defender or be represented by LCLC. This would allow the University of Chicago to analyze and compare both groups.
When Campanelli’s term as public defender was up for renewal in 2021, she received this supportive editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times that called for her re-appointment. LCLC anticipated she would continue in the position, but when she did not receive another term, LCLC hired her as its Vice President of Restorative Justice.
We welcomed the opportunity to add an attorney and legal supervisor who has decades of courtroom experience. We appreciated the fact that Campanelli shares the same vision of a justice system that promotes restorative justice and second chances for people in Chicago who do not have the same opportunities as those who grow up in homes of wealth and stability. Both Nellis and Campanelli were part of the Cook County stakeholder leadership team that developed the first Restorative Justice Community Court in Illinois. Both understand the importance of ensuring that the community has a voice and control of systemic processes that affect the community.
The IG report contains no mention of the RCT, the consent process or the publicly-available involvement of the University of Chicago. The IG also never contacted Nellis to discuss this matter.
The IG report also insinuates that LCLC was at risk of losing funding if LCLC could not receive clients from the public defender’s office for this evaluation. This is false. LCLC does not have any funding that requires this RCT evaluation and never has.
Moving forward on all projects involving clients, LCLC will continue its longstanding practice that everybody provides written consent to work with LCLC and receive its services. Every entity that partners with LCLC will be required to provide the same consent process and memorialize that process in writing with LCLC.
LCLC will continue to serve justice-involved youth and emerging adults, some of the most vulnerable in our city who need and deserve our support the most.
We understand the root causes of crime in Chicago, and we are the only community-based nonprofit that provides this holistic legal defense model. And we are proud of the fact that we are not based downtown or in a courthouse; we are in – and for – the community.
We do not appreciate any public or media reports about us that lack necessary context and facts. But we certainly respect any entity’s right to do its job. We believe that if more people learn about our model, they will realize that we can have a better way of public defense and public safety in our city, county and state.
Our work is violence prevention. And we will always protect the juveniles and adults who choose to walk with us through, and away from, the justice system.
Board of Directors, Lawndale Christian Legal Center