Opened in August 2017 in the North Lawndale community, the first ever Restorative Justice Community Court (RJCC) is an innovative collaboration between community-based service providers and the Circuit Court of Cook County. It aims to address the vicious cycle of mutually reinforcing problems: mass incarceration, crime and community violence, mistrust between the community and the criminal justice system, and the mismatch between the adult justice system and the developmental capacities and needs of emerging adults. Research has shown that this population is less future oriented, more susceptible to peer influence and risk-taking and more volatile in emotionally charged settings especially if they suffered childhood trauma. The Court takes this distinct stage of life into account by applying restorative practices to address root causes of behavior while also focusing on accountability for wrong doing through open dialogue between the victim, perpetrator and the community through peace circles and harm repair agreements. The RJCC relies heavily on its community-based partners to provide the necessary wrap around services to carry out the model effectively. The Court’s intention is to offer participants an off ramp out of the system that ultimately influences their life trajectory away from further criminal justice involvement.
Eligible participants are between the ages of 18-26, who reside in the North Lawndale community, and have plead guilty to nonviolent felonies charges. At their bond hearing, the defendant must be recommended by the presiding judge, prosecutor and the defense attorney for diversion to the RJCC instead of the traditional justice system. In its first year, the court saw 73 individuals, 45 of whom currently have active cases. Twelve participants have completed the court and 16 were either rearrested, transferred back for noncompliance or transferred for administrative reasons. The McCormick Foundation is in its second year of supporting the evaluation of the RJCC being conducted by Adler University. This is critical to understanding if the court is having an impact on stopping the cycle of young adults in and out of the system and if the model can be replicated in other neighborhoods in Chicago and across the country. As is the case with any pilot, there have been many challenges and lessons learned in the first year of operations, most notably those arising from the difficult but necessary trust building that is taking place between the community of North Lawndale and the criminal justice system to create a functional court that meets the expectations of each.