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Court Convenes: Healing and Justice Meet

“Even if you’re the one charged, you will help create the answer.”

And the court has now come to order.

The speaker is Colleen Sheehan, the presiding judge of the Restorative Justice Community Court, which opened last week in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale, after several years of intense planning.

This new court – this utterly new idea about the administration, and meaning, of “justice” – is part of the Cook County Circuit Court system, launched as a two-year pilot project with the help of a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. It is also, in the eyes of the many people who have helped to make this court a reality, the beginning of something extraordinary: a movement away from punishment-based judicial proceedings to a system based on . . . healing.

But what does that even mean? The prevailing cynicism has walled itself off from the possibility of such change. The opening of this new court was barely noticed: a dozen or so visitors sat at the edge of the proceedings, as Judge Sheehan – a juvenile court judge, a member of the judicial system for 17 years – gave a brief summation of how the court works.

I begin by noting that the system is voluntary. Both victim (if there is one) and defendant must choose to be a part of this process, which involves, in lieu of traditional court proceedings, the convening of a peace circle, or a series of peace circles, in which all those impacted by the crime, including members of the community where it occurred, are given the chance to talk about how the incident affected them. This is not a simple process – it is definitely not “assembly line” justice. A trained circle keeper maintains the integrity of the circle(s), which must be safe and confidential, a place where all participants feel free to talk and where their words are heard and honored.

Ultimately, the participants come up with a “Repair of Harm Agreement”: a legal document describing the steps the defendant must take to repair the damage he or she caused. Once they’re met, the case is dismissed. There’s no “criminal record,” which often amounts to lifelong entrapment in the prison-industrial system, especially for men and women of color who are residents of impoverished communities like North Lawndale.

The revolutionary nature of this new court, to my mind, pulses in Judge Sheehan’s brief summation of the process: “Even if you’re the one charged, you will help create the answer.”

The defendant is a participant in the process!

This is a radical shift in our understanding of justice. In a conventional court, justice is an adversarial process: Judgment comes from on high and the role of the defendant is to shut up and obey. In Restorative Justice Community Court, there is a larger, more complex understanding of the context in which crime occurs and all participants have a say in how to heal its wounds.

A punishment-based system singles out bad guys and pretends that inflicting retributive pain on someone who has caused harm somehow fixes things – and, indeed, that the only “interest” involved is the state’s. “Low-income neighborhoods in America’s major cities are being torn apart not just by crime but by justice,” I wrote a year ago, as the planning process for this new court was getting underway. But Restorative Justice “seeks to create and expand trust between people, not just pass judgment on wrongdoers and shrug as neighborhoods go to hell.”

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, described, in a PBS interview several years ago, the impact this dysfunctional system has on young people: “Maybe they were stopped and searched and caught with something like weed in their pocket. Maybe they got into a fight at school, and instead of having a meeting with a counselor, having intervention with a school psychologist, having parental and community support, instead of all that, you got sent to a detention camp. Suddenly you’re treated like a criminal, like you’re worth nothing. You’re no good and will never be anything but a criminal, and that’s where it begins.”

This has got to change. And change is never simple. But maybe there was a beginning last week in North Lawndale. Two defendants sat at tables arranged in a circle (really an oblong) in a temporary courtroom set up at a local community service building. Judge Sheehan also sat there, along with other members of the judicial system and members of the community. Both young men had been charged with possession of a controlled substance, precisely the sort of entryway offense that can have lifelong consequences.

At this point, the court only hears cases involving nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors, committed by people aged 18 to 26 who live in North Lawndale – and who choose to participate.

The court process lasted a few minutes for each young man. Each signed a form that waived his right to a conventional trial; each agreed to participate in a community peace circle and honor the Repair of Harm Agreement that emerges from the process. That’s it. The circle happens beyond the courtroom.

And suddenly court was over. There was no drama, just a quiet transition to a new way of dealing with crime and trouble. But this transition was not unnoticed. When the judge said “court is adjourned,” there was a burst of applause from the observers sitting in folding chairs along the wall.

Let it be that justice and healing are never again separate concepts.

More articles by:

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

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