More than a Mugshot: On the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender

 /  Oct. 7, 2018, 9:43 p.m.


When I applied for the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights Internship Program, my chief goal was to develop my understanding of the Cook County criminal justice system in Chicago. While the Pozen Center’s program enables accepted students to travel virtually anywhere in the world, I yearned to learn more about the surrounding South Side of Chicago community, beyond the blue-wall boundary enforced by the University of Chicago Police. As a fortunate student at an elite institution—one trying to combat a legacy of community displacement—I found it crucial to get proximate to men and women held in detainment in the Cook County penal system. On the first day, I was introduced to a dedicated team of case workers, public defenders, investigators, and support staff and would come to learn how crucial their work is. Eventually my face-to-face interactions with detainees at the Cook County Jail, and the resultant opportunities to understand them as people rather than as abstract categories, would inform my understanding of the need for the policy reform ideas discussed at the conclusion of this piece.

Investigators in the office are responsible for collecting case facts and do so by taking photos, interviewing witnesses, and serving subpoenas for specific testimonies or documents. Their work is integral to the process of defense work and is relied upon by public defenders when looking to create a case that has their client’s back. Through diligent field work, investigators provide information, facts, and testimonies that weaken the case being made against defendants; either contradicting the narrative that they committed a certain act or deserve as harsh a charge as is being pushed for by the state’s attorney prosecutors. I would accompany investigators on these field investigations, and saw firsthand the deeply personal impact of an arrest on a home, the blighted areas where crimes were alleged to have occurred, and the remarkable degree of wisdom and empathy required of investigators who seek to gather information.

On one trip, I observed a family that shared narratives of inner turmoil, spousal abuse, behavioral disorders, and mutual resentments, which contributed to a disruption of peace within the home and led to one family member being charged with a violent offense. On occasions like these, investigators do what they can to assuage their fears, provide comfort, offer gestures of support, and remain optimistic. Certainly, the kind of brash, arrogant investigator archetype that is occasionally popularized on television would get these investigators nowhere and would only contribute to more community distrust of the criminal justice system.

The caseworkers I worked alongside were employed by the Safer Foundation, the largest non-profit in America geared towards the successful rehabilitation of those who have left the penal system. Before I began my internship, I was aware of the foundation’s community advocacy efforts, specifically in the areas of  job searches and interview trainings for returning citizens. I had even considered a placement with the foundation as part of my Human Rights internship! Dedicated to helping detainees navigate the bond court process, the case workers would interview detainees each day to gather information for their mitigation before the daily bond court session. During court, they assist to ensure that the amount of bond, special conditions of bond, next court dates, and branch locations for court dates are all recorded and provided to family members who are present.

The bulk of my work during my time at the Cook County Criminal Court Building on 26th Street and California Avenue was with the Safer Foundation staff. Each morning, I went down through an underground tunnel system into detainment to help interview defendants for bond court. To give others a sense of my work, I related to them the example of black and brown men walking at night, potentially prompting others to cross the street—these were the men that my work called on me to serve without judgement, fear, or bias. All of  the detainees were respectable, only occasionally difficult to work with. Most were concerned with their freedom, their ability to speak with their public defender, and their potential for a rehabilitative program where applicable.

The work I performed is important for the upholding of the civil rights of each of the detainees, but is largely unglamorous. Unsurprisingly, I would encounter men who were irritated, depressed, suffering from withdrawal, frustrated, or lacking hope about their specific circumstances. Many of them didn’t have family members who were available to help post bond, had not finished high school due to incarceration, or were fathers eager to get back to their children. Some men were repeat offenders and had been arrested before for similar charges. On one occasion a man that I interviewed returned to detainment after violating a bond that he had been granted only a few weeks prior, and I had to interview him again.

A Real-World Understanding

The more men that I interviewed, the more I came to understand that abstract thinking over a topic like “criminal justice reform” is not at odds with a “real world” understanding of the topic. However, interviewing, listening to, and speaking with the detainees granted me a deeper resonance with the effects of the underlying systems, structures, practices, and institutions that precede criminal behavior, cycles of poverty, and high rates of recidivism (re-entry back into the penal system). Take the following example: Prior to my internship I had considered research that rejects the practice of holding juvenile detainees in detainment for long stretches of time. Despite how existing research buttresses the argument that the longer a juvenile detainee is held in jail the more likely they are to reoffend upon release, juvenile detainment persists as a practice carried out by many jail systems around the country. My internship took me beyond this research, as it granted me a real world understanding of this very issue. It enabled me to get close to the contexts that I had only read about prior, as I interviewed men who would not be able to post bail, and who would have to remain in detainment. Reading empirical research is one thing, getting proximate to structural problems is another. My experience enabled me to witness upclose the lasting consequences of the bond hearing process upon the life of another person, to see what happens when the man in front of me is labeled a threat to society.

Some seek to place the blame for these labels mostly upon detainees. Some consider their freedom of choice as the most crucial factor when evaluating cycles of criminality. Many reject the narrative that addressing structural problems is the key to lowering high rates of crime. My experiences as an interviewer showed me the need for a nuanced perspective when addressing criminality. Ideally, this perspective would incorporate the voices of the criminalized, incarcerated, and dismissed among us who might genuinely desire an opportunity to do better.

During my internship, I actively listened to men who believed that they could get a GED if given a chance to re-enter school, laughed with men who sought aid with drug rehabilitation programs, and provided encouragement to men whose family members sought to help them stay on the right path. Indeed for many of them, the desire to stop offending is present, but the temptation to fall back into the old ways is strong. Few can do it alone—particularly in the case of offenders charged with possession of a controlled substance. Societal investments in conflict resolution training, job skill development initiatives, opioid addiction recovery, and residential treatment programs must all work cohesively to mitigate the problem.

Fortunately, some of these kinds of programs are on offer from the Cook County Department of Corrections and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. SAVE, the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort, is a behavioral therapy program geared towards promoting positive interpersonal relationships, gang detachment, and conflict resolution amongst participants. Recipe for Change is a voluntary program that provides participants with the educational resources and rigorous training necessary to begin a career in the culinary world, including the chance to attain various industry recognized certifications while in detainment.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office offers two ninety-day opioid recovery programs, WestCare for men and THRIVE for women, which provide intensive evidence-based substance abuse programming for non-violent detainees in need of tools and support to address their addictive habits. The continued funding and improvement of these proposals do not encourage detainees to grow dependent on government aid, nor to embrace a pathos of victimhood. These proposals are instead geared towards promoting the independence of detainees from cycles of poverty. They play a meaningful role in helping detainees to overcome biased societal institutions, structures, and practices which prevent them from successfully re-entering old communities on a new path. A prime example of such an institution is the mugshot.

The Mugshot

The mugshot photo, often posted online after a suspect of a crime has been arrested, is a symbol that carries a mark of societal disdain and embodies many of the collateral consequences of incarceration. The harmful role it plays regarding the perceptions of witnesses, the decisions of business hiring managers, and the racial disparities in crime reporting has been well documented. Business leaders refuse or are prohibited from hiring those who have left the penal system and avidly Google search new hires, often honing in on applicants with African-American-sounding names in order to weed out those who they deem a potential threat.

This behavior is more than an act of bias. It showcases a societal lack of trust in the efficacy of the criminal justice system and weakens the traditionally conservative claim that what ex-felons or convicts need is enough personal responsibility to get a job post-release. Further, the litany of professions permanently closed-off to ex-offenders due to their having committed specific crimes contradicts the notion that time served behind bars is geared towards their reformation, and their reintegration into civil society. If ex-offenders are permanently barred from specific careers post-release, how can we say that reform is a genuine societal priority?

Societal Reintegration

My work brought me proximate to the drug dealer, the homeless, the dope sick, the attempted murderer, the gun offender, and many others that those in mainstream society may fear or seek to avoid. Instead of coming away from the experience with cynicism, my time with them reaffirmed the self-evident truth that each of the detainees carried the potential to be something more than was listed on the arrest report, was articulated by the prosecution, or was depicted in the mugshot. The work performed each day by the hardworking investigators, public defenders, and supervisors at the Office of the Cook County Public Defender embodies a daily commitment to this potential, but, arguably more importantly, reveals the fact that more must be done to buttress that potential.

In his discussions of the social responsibilities and moral obligations that Americans from all walks of life bear, Dr. Martin Luther King once affirmed, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Nowhere is this truth more apparent than in the criminal justice system, arguably the only sector of society that involves a deliberate rejection of individuals deemed unfit for participation in our civic life. This network of mutuality requires that we care about the areas in the penal system in need of reform and that we be committed to ensuring that both private and public ends are geared towards successful re-entry and reconciliation with those who have been held accountable.

The extents to which goals like these seem naïve are a direct reflection of the extents to which we lack faith in the redemptive power of our civic institutions. We must also not forget that many ideals modern liberals take for granted were once considered radically idealistic, such as the notion that children, women, and black people are all entitled to equal protection under the law. If we seek to affirm and uphold a robust commitment to our ideals, our present day criminal justice institutions must claim redemptive power—unfortunately not all of them do in their mission statements. If we seek to further the aims of a more just world, it’s up to responsive citizens to close the moral gap between how our corrective institutions exist, and how they should.

Where Do We Go From Here?

With this in mind, I’d like to conclude with four areas for potential reform that were brought to my attention over the course of my experience as an investigations intern: the elimination of monetary bail requirements for release, greater coordination between local and state governments and criminal justice advocacy non-profits, the offering of drug treatment therapies and mental health services for all who are released, and more robust policy proposals aimed at job security for ex-offenders. These policies would include a higher minimum wage, more affordable housing and trade school options, and more rigorous crackdowns on businesses found to be engaging in hiring discrimination, particularly in the wake of successful “ban-the-box” initiatives that prohibit some employers from asking about past-criminal history.

Monetary Bond Elimination

Despite the seemingly radical sounding proposal to eliminate cash bail, the bail reform movement reflects more a return to common sense than an embrace of unrealistic principles. For example, research from the Pretrial Justice Institute strongly supports the view that monetary bonds, often championed as the most effective means for ensuring that detainees return for their next court dates, are no more effective at doing so than recognizance bonds, which eliminate the monetary requirement for defendants. The State of California has already begun a massive overhaul of cash bail in light of findings like these, spurred on by grassroots activists concerned about the long-term effects of unnecessary detainment upon the wellbeing of defendants. Senate Bill 10, as it is called, would replace cash bond with low, middling, and high-risk assessments, which utilize risk factors alone when determining a defendant’s flight risk (chances they won’t appear in court), or likelihood of re-offending after being released.

The bill has come under fire from The Human Rights Watch, however, due to lack of input from community advocacy groups and advocates, as well as its potential to empower potentially biased judges with an enormous degree of discretion over a given defendant’s release. These expanded powers could potentially further the systemic racial disparities the bill is aimed at reducing. Still, if the fifty states are the laboratories of democracy, then the willingness of the people of California to experiment in bail reform is a good starting point to discover the efficacy and shortcomings of a non-monetary bail system, potentially providing a legitimizing factor for similar reforms at the federal level. The case of Senate Bill 10 however, remains a cautionary tale against the failings of policy proposals not informed by the close perspective of grassroots community activists working at the ground level.

Non-Profit Development

During a portion of my internship at the Cook County Juvenile Court, I attended a conference presentation on the impact of arrests and convictions beyond the courtroom. The presentation was led by a representative of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, a civil rights advocacy non-profit which works to empower Chicago citizens in need of legal representation. The organization also works to challenge ongoing societal structures that create legal barriers to the long term employment, housing, and educational attainment of those who have left the penal system. State and local investments in criminal justice advocacy non-profits like Cabrini Green Legal Aid and the Safer Foundation are another potential area for greater investments. In essence, efforts by mayors, governors, city councils, and state legislatures to broaden the scope of criminal justice non-profit advocacy should be encouraged and demanded by voters. Additionally, there should be as much competition in the non-profit community to lower recidivism as there currently is to find donors and have the most talked about fundraiser.

Mental Health Services and Drug Treatment Therapy

The City of Chicago is no stranger to a lack of access to mental health and drug treatment facilities. The issue is prominent enough to have caught the attention of celebrity artist Chance The Rapper, who has pledged $1 million to promote access to mental health services in Chicago. The nature of this challenge lies beyond the individual decision of an offender to seek help. It emerges with the decisions of local government officials to close community centers of mental care and emotional health in the name of fiscal responsibility. Regarding drug abuse recovery, there are already innovative drug treatment programs for offenders, tailored towards finding the underlying psychological conditions and social contexts which precipitate the usage of drugs.

The defense and expansion of these programs will enable patients to recognize the root causes of long-established patterns of behavior, and discover wholesome alternatives that promote their recovery and wellbeing. Since some drug offenders also suffer from mental health disorders, drug treatment therapies should be well-integrated with mental health treatments, so as to ensure that offenders have access to robust, multifaceted care aimed at their complex challenges. All of these policy implementations require political will, funding, and attention from civic leaders keen on promoting public awareness about the benefits of an emotionally healthy citizenry, free from drug abuse.

Job Security for Ex-Offenders

As always, state and local governments should work with the federal government to promote access to well paying jobs in a way that is tailored to the unique industries, community needs, and state and local economies across America. In my time as an Investigations Intern, I encountered many men who would regularly rely on Temp agencies like Elite Staffing, which provide work, but at inconsistent hours and at low wages. Investments in higher minimum wage policies, local trade schools, and affordable housing options would provide these men with a meaningful foundation upon which they could get off streets and avoid falling into illicit trades, poverty, or homelessness. Each of these policies would make securing and keeping a stable job easier, and would help ex-offenders returning to economically blighted communities build wealth. Additionally, in the case of hiring discrimination, local and state governments should fight to implement ban-the-box initiatives, which correlate with an increase in call-backs for job applicants with criminal records.

These proposals would go a long way towards helping those who have been incarcerated to turn over a new leaf—enabling them to affirm a new path for themselves, and us to reaffirm our moral commitment to helping them do so.


Chicago Community Bond Fund

The image featured with this article exists in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original can be found here.

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.


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