CHICAGO –For the first time, the Circuit Court of Cook County will create a Restorative Justice Community Court that empowers victims and residents to play an active role in the rehabilitation of adult offenders who commit certain nonviolent crimes, under a pilot program Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy C. Evans announced today.
The “restorative justice” concept emphasizes the ways that crime harms relationships in the community and brings together the people most impacted by the crime to resolve it. Under the model, defendants take accountability for their actions and then work to repair the harm – for example, through restitution, community service, letters of apology, and peace circles.
The Community Court will hear nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors committed by adults ages 18 through 26 who reside in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The court will be located in North Lawndale at a community location to be determined, and it is expected to open in early 2017.
Funding to create the court comes from a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, administered by the New York-based Center for Court Innovation. The Circuit Court of Cook County is one of 10 sites selected for a grant; 70 jurisdictions submitted applications for the funds.
“The Community Court sends a message to the public that we are committed to resolving conflicts in our neighborhoods in a way that both helps nonviolent offenders take responsibility for their actions while also providing restitution and restoration to victims,” Chief Judge Evans said. “This is a court dedicated to improving lives and increasing confidence in our system of justice.”
“I am so thankful to the Department of Justice and the Center for Court Innovation for helping us start the work and provide the support needed to establish this innovative court. This is a solution to help send defendants on better paths and reduce the likelihood that they commit another crime.”
The restorative justice approach helps reintegrate offenders back into the community by connecting them with services including mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, education, job training, and parenting classes.
Conflicts are addressed through restorative conferences and peace circles involving defendants, victims, family members, friends, others affected by the crime and the community. This process establishes accountability toward the victim and anyone else affected while also determining a plan to move forward. The conferences and peace circles provide a safe place where all voices can be heard.
All restorative conferences and peace circles are facilitated by trained staff. Cook County Circuit Judge Colleen F. Sheehan will preside over the court and make decisions on community-based sentences and treatment for the defendants. The Social Service Department, a community corrections agency which reports to Chief Judge Evans, will work with the court on this initiative.
“The community would be invested in this. The community has been clamoring for change, for a transformation and to take a look at how we approach crime and what our criminal justice system is about. This Community Court seeks to give the community a voice in identifying problems and crafting solutions,” Judge Sheehan said.
Defendants will enter the program voluntarily, and those who successfully complete the program may have the opportunity to have their charges dropped and arrest expunged.
The pilot project is expected to serve about 100 defendants per year. Eligible defendants must have a current nonviolent charge and no more than one prior felony conviction.
The $200,000 grant covers a two-year period and will fund a Community Court coordinator with a $60,000 annual salary, training for court personnel, and other expenses incurred to operate the court.