Rethinking Criminal Justice

“For over forty years our criminal justice system has over-relied on punishment, policing, incarceration and detention. This has ushered in an age of mass incarceration. This era is marked by sentencing policies that lead to racially disproportionate incarceration rates and a variety of ‘collateral consequences’ that have harmed our communities and schools. . . .”

In this time when our self-inflicted troubles seem so obvious but the possibility of change — that is to say, political transformation, through awareness, compassion and common sense — feels more illusory than ever, something extraordinary, that is to say real, is on the brink of happening in Chicago.

The above quote isn’t just another analysis from the margins, to be uttered and instantly ignored. It’s part of a Vision and Action Plan, written by Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Colleen Sheehan, not simply proposing fundamental change in our punishment-based system of justice but describing change that is about to happen and, in fact, is already underway.

I’ve written a lot over the years about a concept called Restorative Justice, a healing-based, multifaceted approach to dealing with crime — social harm — that seeks first of all to repair the damage that has occurred and, profoundly, to restore the wholeness within a community that has been shattered. RJ, as it is known, seeks to create and expand trust between people, not just pass judgment on wrongdoers and shrug as neighborhoods go to hell.

Sheehan, as a Juvenile Court judge, saw firsthand the ineffectiveness of the current system — the “collateral consequences” of America’s prison-industrial complex and the utter vulnerability of the children caught up in the system.

“The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.”

And where has this gotten us? Low-income neighborhoods in America’s major cities are being torn apart not just by crime but by “justice” — by the fact that so many of their kids not only go to jail via the school-to-prison pipeline but wind up caught in a system that never lets them go. When they get a record, they are often consigned to second-class citizenship for the rest of their lives.

And the cost of their incarceration is astronomical — some $1.4 million a day to warehouse 10,000 inmates in Cook County Jail, according to figures cited in the Vision and Action Plan. And meanwhile, there’s no money for schools or social services.

Sheehan decided she couldn’t just shrug helplessly at this situation. In collaboration with numerous RJ practitioners in the Chicago area, she began envisioning an alternative: a Restorative Justice Community Court. The idea was presented to Chief Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy Evans, who saw its value — and with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, a two-year pilot program for a new system of justice will begin in 2017 in

Chicago’s North Lawndale community, a community already committed to serious social change.

There’s still an enormous amount of planning to be done. As Sheehan told me, “The concept is very simple: repair harm from crime. But how you do it is very complex.”

Here are the basic logistics, according to the Cook County Circuit Court: “The Community Court will hear nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors committed by adults ages 18 through 26 who reside in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. . . . Defendants will enter the program voluntarily, and those who successfully complete the program may have the opportunity to have their charges dropped and arrest expunged.”

Enter the program voluntarily? What kind of court system is that? Perhaps you can see the complexity emerge. Restorative Justice is a system based on trust, honesty and connectedness. It can’t simply be imposed from above.

Even the alleged offender’s presence must be uncoerced because that’s the only way RJ will work.

At the center of the RJ process is the peace circle. Everyone in the circle sits in what I call vibrant equality, a part of the whole. A talking piece is passed around. You only speak when you hold the talking piece; everyone gets a chance to speak; most of the time you listen; you wait your turn. When the purpose of the circle is to repair harm, all those affected — including the victims of the crime, but also members of the community affected by the crime — have a right to be included, and to speak their minds. Participants strive to reach an agreement about how to repair the damage that has been done.

“As a result,” as the Vision and Action Plan states, “peace circles and restorative conferencing can help address the underlying causes of violence. Throughout the process, victims and offenders will be supported by RJ Court staff. Community service is one example of an activity the offender can participate in to better understand the impact of the offense, give back to the community, and repair the harm she, he, or they created.

“Now is time for innovation in our approach to punishment and the moment is right for a philosophical shift in the way we think about what is truly just in the justice system.”

The current system acknowledges only the state’s interest when a crime occurs, and that “interest” is a sheer, bureaucratic abstraction, a predetermined doling out of tit for tat. However, a community’s interest is real and vital. In an impoverished neighborhood like North Lawndale, that interest is survival itself. The point of the Restorative Justice Community Court is to re-empower the community, to help it address the causes of its crime and rebuild itself.

As Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center and one of the new court’s co-planners, told me, “This court needs a community, a home.” Only in a state of collaboration with the community can the court hope to achieve its goal of healing and repair.

“There’s a huge divide between the community and the justice system,” Nellis said, noting how badly that relationship has been damaged over the years. “This is an opportunity for the system to make up for previous errors, to become worthy of the community’s respect and trust.”

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South