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First community court in Illinois to open next month in North Lawndale

Instead of a traditional courtroom setting, the Restorative Justice Community Court, which starts Aug. 31, will meet around this conference table. | Amanda Svachula/For the Sun-Times

At a new court in North Lawndale, everyone — the defendant, victim, and judge — takes a seat at the same table to discuss the crime.

The Cook County’s Restorative Justice Community Court, the first of its kind in Illinois, will open Aug 31. The court will convene every Thursday in a conference room at UCAN, a social services organization at 3605 W. Fillmore St.

North Lawndale residents ages 18 to 26 who have been charged with nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors will be eligible.

“Simply arresting them and prosecuting them and locking them up and putting them away, has not solved the problem,” Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans said Thursday as the new courtroom was unveiled. “So what we intend to do here is have them become accountable in a new way, not where we’re focusing on punishment, but on healing instead.”

The setting and procedures will be untraditional. Everyone will introduce themselves by name and role — and defendants will take responsibility for their actions, Circuit Judge Colleen Sheehan, who will preside over the court, told the Sun-Times. Defendants then work out an agreement with the person harmed — an arrangement that can focus on restitution, community service, peace circles and letters of apology. That’s why the approach is called “restorative justice.”

“These are neighbors identifying themselves,” Evans said after the news conference.

Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans cuts the ribbon to officially open the new Restorative Justice court. | Amanda Svachula/For the Sun-Times
Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans cuts the ribbon to officially open the new Restorative Justice court. | Amanda Svachula/For the Sun-Times

The court is intended to do more than offer healing to the perpetrator and the victim; it also can identify problems in the community. If the defendant fulfills the terms of the agreement — which could include cleaning graffiti off neighborhood walls or creating a community garden — their crime will be expunged, said Evans.

A steering committee from government and the community helped develop the court. One of those residents, Dr. Carolyn Vessel, said the court will give “new life” not only to victims but also to offenders, who can get mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training and parenting classes.

“Unacceptable behavior will be identified and corrected,” Vessel said.

The court is funded by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. In its first year, it is expected to serve about 100 defendants.

Sharlyn Grace, a criminal justice policy analyst at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice helped with RJCC’s development. She told the Sun-Times creating the court was a matter of “balancing the needs of a court, which is very rooted in public process” with restorative justice, which is more “individualized, confidential and personal.”

Evans said he hopes to expand restorative justice to other neighborhoods, such as Englewood and Roseland.

The goal, Evans said, is to “welcome back a responsible resident rather than someone who is to be feared in the future.”