Last year, 26-year-old Jeremiah Clark was facing charges of unlawful use of a weapon, a crime punishable with a minimum of four years in prison, even if no one gets harmed.
After being bonded out of jail and placed on house arrest, Clark wrote a letter to his future self about his goals, sought a job and talked with others about his future.
Now, Clark is in the process of having that weapons charge wiped from his record, and he hopes to make the most of his second chance.
“I am happy that this happened to me. I think this is a good opportunity,” Clark said.
Clark was one of 46 people who graduated Thursday from the North Lawndale Restorative Justice Community Court program, a Cook County recidivism-focused program that helps people caught in the legal system get a fresh start. The graduation ceremony was held at UCAN, 3605 W. Fillmore St., with Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans and other officials looking on.
The community court program, which is aided by social justice nonprofit Heartland Human Care Services, gives participants a chance to get their lives back on track by providing housing, job assistance and, most importantly, a clean record. Restorative justice court programs are run out of North Lawndale, Englewood and Avondale.
“These are our ambassadors to come back into society as citizens rather than convicted felons,” Evans said at the event. “They’ll be the ones to tell people about this program. Nobody is perfect. We’ve all had to have grace and a second chance, or even a third chance. You are just like us. You’re going to be whatever you want to be.”
Tytrevious Mims, 24, said he wants to establish his own delivery business with his clean record. The Mississippi-born father also had been charged with unlawful gun possession, and he credits the program for giving him the space to express his true self.
“I’m a known troublemaker. I’m not proud of my mistakes, but if it weren’t for those mistakes, I wouldn’t have met such great people,” Mims said. The program “gave me a push that I didn’t know I needed. I’m grateful that I went through this program and did everything that I needed to succeed.”
Restorative Justice Community Court began in 2017 and focuses on adults aged 18-26 charged with non-violent felony or misdemeanor crimes. Those who successfully complete the program have the opportunity to have their charges dismissed and even have their court records expunged after the program is complete.
To graduate, participants must complete the requirements of an individualized “repair of harm agreement.” This comes in the form of getting a high school diploma or GED, getting job training and employment, or making amends to anyone they have wronged through their actions, said Mary Wisniewski, Cook County Circuit Court spokesperson.
Judges in the program meet regularly with participants for six to 12 months, and participants work with social workers who provide resources such as counseling and help prevent them from reoffending, Wisniewski said.
The program is funded by the Edward R. Byrne Justice Assistance Grant from the Department of Justice.
“This is the best part of my job,” assistant state’s attorney Jamal Jackson said at the graduation ceremony. “Knowing that there’s one less person in the system, one less person that looks like me on the inside. There’s a way to prosecute without locking them up, without putting them in cages.”
Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer, who was born and raised in North Lawndale, sought to give encouragement to the graduates about their paths in life after they completed the program.
Deer has worked in restorative justice for years, working as an aide to Rep. Danny Davis to create the Second Chance Act of 2007 to help prisoners transition back into their communities after serving their sentences.
“It’s not going to be easy for you. There are people you grew up with that don’t want you to do good,” he said. “What we are doing with this can create generational change. You can choose change, for the better.”