Every year in Illinois, 45% of offenders released from jail or prison will return to the criminal justice system within three years. 19% will of them be back within one. Illinois has struggled with recidivism (the rate of ex-offenders who return to prison) for decades; a fact that hurts communities, families and the state – socially and financially.
That said, the new Restorative Justice Community Court (RJCC), a North Lawndale-based court managed by the Circuit Court of Cook County at UCAN’s headquarters, is bringing the victims of nonviolent crime face-to-face with the offenders to work out a resolution, and ideally have a positive impact on reducing the number of repeat offenses and offenders.
The first court of its kind in the state will assemble North Lawndale community members, a judge, defendants, victims and their neighbors who will work to agree on solutions to hold defendants accountable for their crimes – and to heal the harm caused by the crime.
The court has started at UCAN’s Nichols Center every Thursday for the next year, and is being presided over by the Judge Colleen F. Sheehan, who was pivotal in the development of RJCC, along with the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy C. Evans.
“What we intend to do here is have [ex-offenders] become accountable in a new way, not where we’re focusing on punishment, but on healing instead,” Chief Judge Evans explains.
The court is completely voluntary, and is open to North Lawndale residents ages 18-26, with a non-violent criminal past who have been charged with a non-violent crime. The person must be willing to participate and accept the responsibility of the harm caused by his or her action.
Together, in what is known as a “Peace Circle,” the judge, defendant, victim and community representatives sit down to discuss the crime and its repercussions, so the offender can understand the harm done.
All parties then enter into a legally binding “Repair of Harm Agreement,” in which an appropriate form of restitution is agreed upon, possibly including financial restitution, community service hours or even the defendant participating in an employment program. The goal of the court is to help the victim and the defendant, which will in turn benefit the entire community.
Once the defendant has completed the agreed upon restitution, the charge will be expunged from their record.
“This is truly the people’s court,” Judge Sheehan stated. “The community has the power to determine how they heal from the harm of crime and conflict. It is the community that has the wisdom and humanity to do this. Every human being in every community wants safety and a sense of belonging. This court helps provide the structure and support so the community of North Lawndale can bring that healing home.”
Judge Sheehan hopes to create an alumni association of ex-offenders who complete the process of restorative justice in order to continue to enhance the court’s progress.
“This is just the start,” Chief Judge Evans says.
At the July 20 news conference when the court was announced Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said, “The solution to what’s happening in our neighborhoods is not solved by institutions, it’s by those who are in the neighborhoods, empowering communities to take hold of what happens to them and around them.”
UCAN has high hopes that the RJCC will have a lasting and healing effect in North Lawndale, and inspire other counties to adopt the restorative justice model to give our young people a second chance.
By Carly Hanson