Court officials and North Lawndale community members gathered Thursday at the Nichols Center, 3605 W. Fillmore St., to cut the ribbon on a new type of court that doesn't hand down prison sentences: Illinois's first Restorative Justice Community Court.
This summer, City Bureau reporters will follow the progress of the court—one of 10 restorative justice projects nationwide supported by the Department of Justice—and document community attitudes toward the program. Here is what we know so far.
1 - It's not a traditional court
Like its name suggests, the court operates based on principles of restorative justice, an alternative to the country's traditional punishment for crimes.
"This is about the community," said Judge Colleen Sheehan, who will be presiding over the court. "The community has the power to determine how to heal the harm from crime and conflict. It is the community that has the wisdom and humanity to do this."
This resolution is decided within a "peace circle," a conflict resolution technique with a long history in American Indian culture—and a strong presence in Chicago, especially the North Lawndale neighborhood. Trained North Lawndale residents will facilitate the court's circles, creating a nonjudgmental space of mutual respect where victims and community stakeholders can explain how the crime affected them, and the accused can share what led them to commit the crime. The goal is to reach an agreement where both the accused and the victims feel "restored" to the community: that might include a defendant doing community service work, accessing social services (like counseling, drug treatment or job training) or paying restitution to victims. Sheehan and the court's Social Service Department will oversee adherence to the agreement.
"Once the harm has been repaired, the case will be dismissed," Sheehan said. "This court provides a way for the defendant to take responsibility for the harm they have caused without losing opportunities that often come with a felony conviction."
2 - It will only try nonviolent crimes
The new court's defendants must be between 18 and 26 years old, live in North Lawndale, charged with a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor, have no violent criminal history and be willing to accept responsibility for harm done.
Chief Judge Timothy Evans said court organizers chose to focus on young adults who are not eligible for juvenile court but are still cognitively developing. "They suffer from the same syndrome that plagues our juveniles — they often embrace risk-taking activities and don't consider the complications that flow from those kinds of sensation-seeking activities," he noted.
While the court only pulls from a small candidate pool in North Lawndale, Evans hopes to eventually expand to other neighborhoods like Roseland and Englewood.
3 - It will be temporarily housed at UCAN
The Restorative Justice Community Court has yet to find a permanent home, but for now it will be housed at the Nichols Center, headquarters of Uhlich Children's Advantage Network. UCAN, which moved to the neighborhood in 2015, is a social service agency for youth who have suffered trauma.
"The hope is to have another location in the neighborhood," Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx said. "The only way that this works is if it is easily accessible to the people who will use this court and those are the people in the neighborhood."
4 - The court will open on August 31
After three years of planning, the court finally has an opening date. "It has been an ever-evolving process: Where are we going to find the building? How do we staff the building? How do we screen the cases?" Foxx explained.
Cases have yet to be selected, but court officials said they expect to serve about 100 defendants in the first year. It doesn't sound like a lot, admitted Cliff Nellis, the executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. "[But] this has never been done before. The court will only be operating one day a week; it's not like we're going to jump in and take 1,000 cases the first day. It's going to be a trickle because we really want to learn as we go."
5 - For the next year and a half the court will be funded by a federal grant
The Circuit Court of Cook County received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance to fund the court. It was one of 10 similar grants from the federal agency, totaling $2 million in assistance across the country.
The guidelines for who can be served by the court are in part dictated by the grant's restrictions. For example, the grant does not allow courts to hear gun cases, said Jeramey Winfield, a restorative justice practitioner at Lawndale Christian Legal Center.
But, he added, there is room for expansion: "The community and the system is so committed to the process, that after the grant has come and gone, we still anticipate continuing with the court … At that point we will revisit what types of case we are taking based on the needs of the community."
A City Bureau reporting team will be covering the progress of this court, community reactions and related stories throughout the summer. Have a tip, suggestion or question? We want to hear about it! Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.
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