Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is making good on a campaign promise by reopening the Community Justice Center, located in Oak Park on Chicago Avenue, just west of Austin Boulevard.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Alvarez, Chicago police officers and officials from the Village of Oak Park took place Wednesday morning at the center, 4 West Chicago Ave. The office will be housed in an Oak Park Village-owned building, where its processor was located before closing down in 2007. The state-based Community Prosecutions Program was shut down that year because of budget cuts. With its new name, the Community Justice Center will have an on-side facilitator who’s expected to help community residents and individuals address such issues as drugs, theft and loitering around schools.

The office serves both the Oak Park and Austin communities, as well as residents on the Near West Side of Chicago and western suburbs. Two other justice centers have already opened on the North and Side sides. Elected in 2008 as the city’s first Hispanic female State’s Attorney, Alvarez made it a priority to reopen the offices. Oak Park’s grand opening marked the third of the offices to reopen under the new title of Community Justice Center. The Oak Park office will be the first reopened in the suburbs – though with its proximity to Chicago just west of Austin Blvd., it will serve the 15th Police District as well.

In addition to working with police departments, the Community Justice Center will also work closely with schools, businesses and residents on crime prevention. The office will have a prosecutor from the State’s Attorney’s mortgage fraud department in-house to answer concerns and address questions.

Crime issues in Oak Park

When Oak Park was struggling over the years to regain control of one of its most troubled blocks, the village used every tool it had available. The battle was for the 400 block of South Taylor, located near Washington Boulevard and two blocks west of Austin Boulevard.

Oak Park’s public works department trimmed trees and brightened street lights on the block. The village’s code department cracked down on problematic houses. But most importantly, Oak Park police started writing lots of local ordinance tickets for loitering, spitting, profanity – all things that would normally get thrown out of any judge’s court.

But Oak Park had a secret weapon for those years in the early 2000s: the Cook County State’s Attorney’s community prosecution office.

“On a problem issue, like the neighborhood, they would come in and work with us hand in hand,” said Oak Park Deputy Police Chief Anthony Ambrose. “They would do the prosecutions for us. It became like a neighborhood problem for them as well.”

In the battle for 400 South Taylor, the State’s Attorney’s office was an incredibly important tool in trying to prosecute those smaller quality-of-life crimes, Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley said.

“[Normally], if we were to write that citation and send that person to court, that case is being thrown out and the judge is then going to be calling here wanting to know ‘Why are you sending these spitting-on-the-sidewalk cases to my court; can’t you see I’m busy?'” Tanksley said. “Now you’ve got a judge sitting there, we’ve got our own community prosecution states’ attorney there arguing the case, and now you’ve got a room full of Oak Parkers in the back. They’re not throwing that case out. Every single one of those kids got fined, and then I think even a couple of parents got fined as well, big time.”

But with the state’s attorneys on the job, all that changed, Tanksley recalled. He said that with a dedicated prosecutor in their corner-augmented by a busload of residents carted to court by the police-the cases became a slam dunk. The problems on Taylor block were resolved by 2005, but the State’s Attorneys’ five community prosecution offices, including Oak Park’s, were shuttered in February 2007 due to budget cuts by County Board President Todd Stroger.

CONTACT: bmeyerson@wjinc.com or tdean@wjinc.com