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Cook County Public Defender Bans Staff From Areas Where They Often Face Masturbation

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli is banning her office’s employees from parts of the courthouse where they have routinely met with jailed clients — and where they have reported increasing instances of male defendants openly masturbating.

A one-page memo distributed Tuesday at Campanelli’s behest prohibits public-defender personnel from entering courtroom lockup areas at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building.

The memo describes two incidents in recent days in which inmates with “pending public-indecency cases [were] left unrestrained in a lockup without deputies present and masturbated in front of an assistant public defender.”

In an interview, Campanelli said she has been pushing Sheriff Tom Dart for more courthouse and jail security for two years.

“There is a breaking point,” she said. “When I hear that people who are known offenders are coming to court, not shackled, and then behaving badly, that’s it.”

The memo says conditions for public defenders have worsened “since the sheriff removed extra deputies that had been providing security in the lockup areas.”

Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer, said there is only so much the sheriff’s office can do.

“We have provided extra staffing every time that we can,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, with the budget crisis that this county is facing, we weren’t in a position to have extra posts assigned behind the courtrooms.”

The masturbation that the public defenders face pales in comparison to what sheriff’s personnel face, according to Smith. “The victims of this behavior and activity are, overwhelmingly, correctional staff.”

Smith said the jail now has 132 detainees known to have “engaged in this behavior.” She said nearly all of them face serious charges and potentially long prison sentences that apparently make a misdemeanor indecent-exposure conviction seem trivial.

The sheriff’s office has backed legislation toughening penalties for indecent exposure in prisons and jails. The bill would have forced offenders with two of those convictions to be registered as sex offenders. 

The public defender’s office opposed the bill. “As a result of their opposition, the legislation did not move,” Smith said.

Campanelli said her stance was a matter of principle: “I’m not here as the public defender to increase misdemeanors to felonies.”

Whether Campanelli’s ban, if it stays in place, will lengthen criminal cases is not clear. The memo advises assistant public defenders in the courthouse to speak with their jailed clients by asking sheriff’s deputies to bring them out of the lockups — and away from other inmates.

Chip Mitchell reports on criminal justice from WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipMitchell1.

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