By Sam Dier
There’s this idea that one’s past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you, but the United States criminal justice system seems to abide by a different set of rules. In Illinois, roughly 55% of the prison population is made up of nonviolent offenders, with charges involving petty crime and drug misdemeanors. These charges can be permanent and tend to haunt these offenders for life. Among issues with housing, employment and civil rights, it can feel impossible for the formerly incarcerated to assimilate back into society after years behind bars.
After serving their time, many are dismissed from prison without having had the proper rehabilitation to adjust to modern society. In Chicago alone, recidivism rates can reach as high as 89% on a given year, meaning the majority of formerly incarcerated people (FIP) find themselves recommitting a crime within three years of their dismissal.
In 2017, in an attempt to end the harmful cycle of revenge and recidivism within the criminal justice system, Chicago adopted the Restorative Justice Community Court (RJCC) in North Lawndale. The RJCC takes a new approach to rehabilitation. By working closely with the victim, the offender and the community, the participant works to repair the harm inflicted by their crime.
Five years later and with three courts established, many are still curious about the innerworkings of the RJCC and how it is benefiting the North Lawndale, Avondale and Englewood communities. With that in mind, let’s dig a bit deeper into how the Restorative Justice Community Courts are working to break that cycle.
It’s a pretty elusive club
There are quite a few requirements to be granted access to the exclusive restorative-based court. Firstly, the charge must be nonviolent in nature, whether a felony or misdemeanor. The offender must be between the ages of 18 to 26 and have either zero criminal history or one that is nonviolent. They must also reside or practice their faith in one of three neighborhoods where the courts are established.
And arguably the most important on the checklist?
“They have to agree to accept responsibility for the conduct that brought them to the attention of the criminal justice system,” said Judge Patricia Spratt, the Cook County Circuit Court judge. “It’s the first step.”
Once these steps are complete, the participants are welcomed to the court.
There’s a cloak-less judge and a talking stick
One of the first to welcome the offenders is Jackie Ingram, a North Lawndale resident and peace circle keeper for the North Lawndale RJCC.
“Before COVID, I was a hugger,” Ingram said. “I would hug everyone.”
Ingram, who has been working for the courts since its foundation, is one of the many certified peace circle keepers who allows the restorative practice to take place.
These members, alongside the participant, work closely to create a Repair of Harm Agreement. This legal document details the steps the participant must take to repair the alleged harm inflicted on the community. Some steps might include formal apologies to the victim through writing letters, monetary compensation and substance abuse treatments.
To help curb the intimidation factor and establish a sense of trust, “our judge doesn’t have a black robe,” Ingram explained. “She sits in the circle and just looks like one of us.”
Peace circles meet once a week and rely on volunteer community members to create a safe space for both the offender and the victim with complete statutory privilege.
“It’s like talking to your priest or talking to your doctor,” Spratt said. “We want them to engage, and we want them to succeed. That’s the whole point, so we work with them.”
Reminiscent of grade school, participants pass around a talking piece. This allows for an environment that invites active listening and creates a safe space for all members involved.
“It’s a formal way of speaking to one another that ensures that everybody is given time to speak and listen to everybody else,” Spratt said.
A clean slate and a fresh start
Participants can find themselves graduating in as soon as six months, with the added bonus of a completely clean record.
Spratt prides the court on its ability to provide its graduates with the benefits of equal housing, equal employment and equal civil liberties. These rights are not always available to the formerly incarcerated, but her graduates are prepared to take on the next chapter in their lives.
“Well, that’s the point,” Spratt said. “We provide them with a fresh start because if you ask me, this is not a second chance court for them, this is a first.”
Within the past five years, 141 participants have successfully graduated from the court, and over 100 of those participants have continued to lead a crimeless life. The RJCC’s recidivism rate of roughly 15% gleams in comparison to Cook County’s, providing people like Spratt the confidence to continue these restorative practices.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies
Recently, the court has seen an influx in nonviolent gun charges, which can sound like an oxymoron to some, including Ald. Nicholas Sposato.
“It depends on what your definition of nonviolent is, you know what I mean?” Sposato said. “I don’t know to what degree that some of these criminals you want to give breaks to. I mean, certainly younger and minor offenses. I’m a little more sympathetic towards that rather than an older person that’s more of a habitual criminal.”
With this concern in mind, the court has introduced a new aspect of the Repair of Harm Agreements for those charged with these nonviolent gun related crimes.
“A lot of people don’t know the rules and regulations,” Ingram explained. “We’ve started teaching gun awareness for those that want to have a gun legally, for whatever reason that might be.”
This initiative is one of many that represents how the court continues to pivot with the needs of the community. With any new program comes learning curves, which Ingram and Spratt are ready to take on at any cost.
When addressing the concerns, Ingram was definitive in her response: “We shouldn’t look at it as a negative because that’s not restorative.”
“We want to open the eyes to the public how beneficial restorative justice can be,” Ingram said. “It’s a process, and we’re learning as we grow.”
* In 2016, Illinois saw 71,551 new convictions; of those, 70,610, or 89%, were reoffenders headed back to prison. (LINK)
** In 2013, 45% of Illinois prisoners were incarcerated for a violent offense, which varied by gender. (LINK)
Sam Dier is a social justice journalism graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @DierSam.