Cook County seeks to expand restorative justice court

Chief Judge Tim Evans met with faith leaders to discuss the court's West Side expansion during Sept. 26 meeting

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By La Risa Lynch

Contributing Reporter

Devell Hill knew exactly what to do when a childhood friend stabbed him during a 2014 attempted robbery. Hill forgave him.

"I knew he really wasn't a bad guy. He was just influenced by the wrong guys to harm me," Hill said. "He already spent two years in jail fighting the case; that was punishment enough for me. I didn't want to see him do any more time after he apologized for it."

That act of kindness would help Hill years later when he found himself in front of a judge fighting a drug possession charge. Impressed by his actions, the judge referred Hill's case to the state's only Restorative Justice Community Court. The unconventional court uses peace circles to help defendants take responsibility for their actions, understand how their crimes impact victims and establish a plan for restitution, called a "repair of harm" agreement. 

For Hill, he wanted to improve his relationship with his son who was born while he was in jail. He also wanted to create a tribute for his younger brother, killed in 2018 by gun violence, and enter drug treatment. Hill successfully completed the program and his three drug cases were dismissed. Hill credits the program for finding his voice and giving him the tools to be leader. Now the 25-year-old mentors other at-risk youth in a North Lawndale boxing program.

"It helped me be a better man, better father and better community activist," Hill said. "This program works."

The office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County wants to expand its Restorative Justice Community Court program. And Austin is one of several sites eyed for this holistic approach to healing for both perpetrators of crime and their victims. 

The effort is to increase the number of people served by these courts by establishing sites in other communities like Englewood, Avondale and Logan Square. The state's only restorative justice court is located in North Lawndale and primarily serves North Lawndale residents. It opened in 2017. 

Chief Judge Timothy Evans spoke about the program as part of a panel on restorative justice practices held Sept. 26 at Grace Lutheran Church in Oak Park. Evans gave no indication of when the additional courts would open, but he did identify possible facilities to house them. 

Unlike traditional criminal courts that focus of punishment, this court help defendants acknowledge the harm their crime brings to victims and the community, and then works to find ways to repair that harm. Evans said there must be a paradigm shift in how the criminal justice systems and society treats perpetrators of crime. 

"We thought we can punish our way out of the problem," Evans said. "We thought, if somebody is on drugs or stealing television sets or cell phones or whatever it was, all we had to do was arrest them, prosecute them, convict them and send them to jail." 

That formula, he said, doesn't work, since many "come right back to the same community with the same drug problem that they had in the first place."

The RJCC is modeled after a similar court in New York City called the Red Hook Community Justice Center. While that court deals with misdemeanors, Evans said the North Lawndale court deals with both nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. Participants must be 16 to 24 years old. 

The program brings together the person charged with a crime, the victim and community members in a peace circle. There, they create a "repair of harm agreement," which spells out the specific actions the participants must do to remedy the harm caused by their crime. Once the repair of harm agreement is completed, the participant's case is dismissed and the persom's record expunged. To date, the court has had 30 graduates to complete the program, including Hill. 

Participants in the program come up with their own plan to repair the harm. That can be as simple as doing community service, getting a GED or acknowledging that they are sorry, said Mazell Sykes, a peace circle facilitator or circle keeper with the RJCC. 

The program doesn't limit what the plan can be, but it shows that the person is actively involved in turning their life around, Sykes said. Participants can also benefit from other services like mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training or parenting classes to achieve.

"It's a process, but if you are willing to do the work that means you are going to change," Sykes said. 

Peace circles are integral to restorative justice practice. These circles, Sykes added, provide a safe place for the participants to talk openly about their hopes, dreams and challenges.

"We talk about what's really affecting them," she said. "What they would like to do and what they need in life. We want them to come back to the community a better whole person." 

Rev. Alan Taylor, the president of the Community of Congregations, which hosted the meeting, supports expanding these courts to the Austin area and beyond. The Community of Congregations is an interfaith organization made of 24 congregations serving Oak Park and River Forest. 

"We see the work of restorative justice as holy work," said Taylor, senior minister of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation. "Restorative justice is about healing, forgiveness [and] reconciliation – that's at the heart of our faith traditions." 

Thursday's meeting, he noted, aimed to raise awareness of restorative justice work, increase support for them and inform how people of the faith community can get involved.

St. Agatha Church's Father Larry Dowling agreed. This meeting, he said, starts the conversation on how to make these courts more acceptable. The challenge, he noted, is educating the community about how restorative justice courts works and then getting people and institutions involved. 

Dowling has worked as a circle keeper for the North Lawndale site since its inception. He also has been in restorative justice work for the last decade. The program's success, he noted, comes from participants realizing they have a voice and that people care about them.

"We've seen big transformation," Dowling said. "It really is a movement and it is growing."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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