‘Restorative’ courts are expanding in Chicago — and that’s a good thing

Any strategy that puts fewer young people in jail or on probation, while attempting to heal the community and themselves, is worth a try.

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Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans

Two new Restorative Justice Community Courts will open next month under the supervision of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

We’re encouraged by the addition of two community-based courts designed to keep younger nonviolent offenders out of the maw of the traditional court system.

The two Restorative Justice Community Courts are set to open Sept. 14 in the Englewood and Avondale neighborhoods. The courts will aim to settle nonviolent felony and misdemeanor cases involving young people through talks and sit-downs between victims and defendants, even members of the community.

The first restorative justice court in Chicago has been operating in North Lawndale since 2017.

The courts are based on a pioneering model in Brooklyn that’s been credited with lowering recidivism among both juveniles and young adults. We’re mindful that this is Cook County, where even the best-intended plans often go sideways.

Still, we’re hoping to see similar, or better, results here.

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Young people who’ve made stupid mistakes and committed nonviolent crimes — say shoplifting or vandalism — shouldn’t get slapped with a permanent criminal record.

Give them a chance to wipe the slate clean and make things right with the victim.

Repairing harm, changing behavior

“We say to them when they get arrested: ‘We’re not going to send you to jail,’ ” Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans said during a recent ribbon-cutting opening of the Avondale court.

“We are going to make certain that you repair the harm that you have committed, but also that you get the kind of help you need so you won’t engage in this kind of conduct in the future,” Evans said.

Under the program, 18- to 26-year-old offenders would be sent to the special courts by recommendation of the state’s attorney’s office.

The candidates have to live in or around the neighborhoods where the courts are located and must have no violent criminal history. The crime has to have been committed in a neighborhood served by the court, and the offender and the person who was harmed have to both agree to participate.

“We are going to make certain that you repair the harm that you have committed, but also that you get the kind of help you need,” Judge Timothy C. Evans.

Once in court, all sides join a peace circle — a concept generally based on Native American and Aboriginal principles for conflict resolution and a key component of the restorative justice movement.

The group is led by a “circle keeper,” who will help them prepare a Repair of Harm agreement.

If the restorative court judge accepts the agreement, there could be a range of “repairs,” including counseling, drug treatment or paying restitution. Once completed with court approval, the offender can get the arrest expunged or the charges dropped.

Officials say the North Lawndale court has handled about 130 cases so far.

“Once the harm has been repaired, the case will be dismissed,” the restorative court’s Presiding Judge Colleen Sheehan told the Austin Weekly News in 2017. “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.”

The program is similar to the pioneering Red Hook Community Justice Center, which opened 20 years ago in Brooklyn.

At Red Hook, sentences can include mental health treatment and community restitution projects such as painting over graffiti or working on a parks beautification project.

There is also a peacemaking program, where parties in a dispute or crime gather along with community members to discuss and resolve the offense, “but also to heal the relationships among those involved and restore balance to the community,” according to the Red Hook court’s website.

The court has been credited with bringing down the arrest rates in nearby precincts, according to Governing magazine. And adults served by the court have a recidivism rate that is 10% lower than for those in the traditional court system. Among juveniles, it was 20% lower.

“We want them to know that we want them to be successful,” Red Hook Community Justice Center Judge Alex Calabrese told Governing in 2017. “They’re so used to getting knocked on their head by the court system.”

Any strategy that puts fewer young people in jail or on probation, while attempting to heal the community and themselves, is worth a try.

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