Advocates encouraged by appointment of new presiding judge in county’s Juvenile Division

The advocates hope to see Judge Donna Cooper use her experiences with a neighborhood-based program that uses restorative justice practices to expand similar opportunities for youth.

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Judge Donna Cooper was named presiding judge of the juvenile division Cook County Circuit Court on Wednesday.

Judge Donna Cooper was named presiding judge of the juvenile division Cook County Circuit Court on Wednesday.


Juvenile justice advocates say they hope the appointment this past week of Judge Donna Cooper to oversee the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Juvenile Division will result in an expansion of programs that help youth avoid some of the negative consequences of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

Advocates and courthouse insiders cited her experience leading one of the county’s neighborhood-based and restorative justice-focused alternative programs for young adults as a sign the program could be expanded to include juvenile defendants as well.

“Judge Cooper’s recent and in-depth experience with the issues facing young adults in Englewood and the positive impact that restorative approaches to harm can have throughout families and communities should be a great asset in moving the work of the juvenile court forward,” said Stephanie Kollmann, policy director for the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University.

Chief Judge Timothy Evans announced Wednesday he was naming Cooper to replace former Juvenile Division Presiding Judge Michael Toomin, who retired last year. Previously, Judge Stuart F. Lubin had been filling the role on an interim basis while candidates were interviewed.

Criminal justice advocates and Cook County Democrats, including Board President Toni Preckwinkle, had at times clashed with Toomin over juvenile court issues, particularly after Toomin won an appeals court decision that said he and other juvenile court judges were allowed to order kids as young as 10 held in jail over county lawmakers’ objection.

Reform groups campaigned to oppose Toomin’s retention on the bench in 2020, and the Cook County Democratic Committee voted not to endorse him.

The former judge ended up getting just enough votes — 2% more than he needed — to keep his seat in a system where judges are often easily reelected if they maintain good ratings from bar associations, which many voters use to base their decisions.

In a statement announcing her promotion, Evans called Cooper “an excellent judge who understands the importance of helping troubled young people become good citizens,” and he acknowledged her work with the Englewood Restorative Justice Community Court.

The county’s community courts, which are also located in Avondale and Lawndale, are a voluntary program available to some young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who are facing a nonviolent misdemeanor or felony charge. Completion of the program can result in a defendant’s charges being dropped and the case being expunged from their record.

Cooper wasn’t available for an interview, but she told WBEZ’s Reset program in 2020 she believed the community courts’ use of restorative justice practices lead to better outcomes for both “the person who caused the harm” and “the person harmed.”

“I think in the long run it’s good for everybody,” Cooper said then.

She noted the program also sought to address issues that might have led someone to become involved in the justice system by offering participants the opportunity for job training and counseling services.

Juvenile advocates said they are encouraged by those comments.

“We’re excited that there’s somebody presiding over juvenile court that has restorative justice training, background and practice,” said Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, which helped start the first community court in the West Side neighborhood.

Nellis said he hoped Cooper and Evans would work together to expand the community courts to include juvenile cases, and cited a state law that took effect last year that “no one is really utilizing yet” that he believed could have a big impact on the juvenile court system.

The Illinois Restorative Justice Privilege Act protects defendants from having information disclosed during restorative justice programs — like conversations with a victim during “healing circles” — from later being used against the defendant in court.

“Hopefully, we’d be able to resolve [more] cases without the need for permanent records or incarceration,” Nellis said.

Cooper grew up in Englewood, attended Northwestern University and earned a law degree from DePaul University College of Law. She retired as a colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard after 25 years of service.

She worked as an assistant public defender in the county, as well as an attorney for the Chicago Park District and the city’s law department before being elected as a judge in 2008.

“I’m grateful to Judge Evans for this opportunity,” Cooper said in a statement. “Juvenile justice law was born in Chicago in 1899. I look forward to continuing this important mission to provide justice and rehabilitation to the young people of Cook County.”

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