Cook County has a new public defender.
Coming into the position is Sharone Mitchell Jr., who previously worked as an assistant Cook County public defender until he was selected as director of the Illinois Justice Project in 2016.
Mitchell is coming in at a turbulent time: Jury trials are resuming Monday with a massive backlog of cases, and a controversial criminal justice bill was signed by the governor last month. All of this, of course, comes against the backdrop of COVID-19.
“The key is to make sure that I hear from the staff, leadership and I protect the safety of our clients and protect the safety of our staff in making the right decisions,” he said.
Mitchell, a lifelong Chicagoan, is the son of a librarian and a driver with the Department of Streets and Sanitation. He said he grew up in a time where he felt the justice system wasn’t simply about punishing the bad guys and protecting people. Seeing those inequities inspired him to intern at the public defender’s office as a law student.
“Very early on I ran into a former classmate who couldn’t believe I was on the other side of the bars in a suit and tie instead of a khaki jumpsuit,” Mitchell said. “That conversation, this wonderment that somebody where I came from was able to do this, just as a law clerk, it defined what I do for the rest of my career.”
Mitchell officially begins his term in April.
In his new role, Mitchell wants to help create an engine for progressive change. He said the county needs to reevaluate the basics, including data collection, training and advocacy work. He’ll also have involvement with the sweeping new criminal justice reform bill, the creation of which he was involved with — particularly the portion focused on eliminating cash bail.
It’s clear, he said, that money shouldn’t be a factor in deciding who’s in jail or released. This system pulls money out of communities that can barely afford it, he added.
“The current system has failed to keep us safe, the current system has failed to produce just results,” Mitchell said.