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Healing in North Lawndale

“This isn’t rocket science,” Jackie Ingram said, humorously downplaying her involvement in the Restorative Justice Community Court, a pilot project of the Cook County Circuit Court, which has brought a new, healing-focused system of justice to her community this past year.

My thought in that moment was: She’s right. Saving kids and reclaiming a troubled, broken community may be more complex than rocket science.

And more crucial.

“This is basic,” she went on. “Give them hope that they have a future.”

Jackie, who lives in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale, is one of the community members involved in the experimental court, which addresses some of the worst failings of the country’s criminal justice system.

She and her friend Patricia Winners, with whom I talked the other day, are co-circle keepers for the court. They work with the young arrestees — 18- to 26-year-old community residents who have been charged with nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors (mostly drug-related), and who choose to participate in the Restorative Justice process — who are given the chance to heal the harm they have caused, avoid jail and have their cases dismissed from the system. They are also given the chance to find their lives.

The North Lawndale court, one of the first of its kind in the country, attempts to eliminate assembly-line “justice”: a system of prosecution and punishment that assumes no responsibility for the effects of what it does. This includes branding young people — primarily from troubled, poverty-stricken neighborhoods like North Lawndale — as lifelong criminals . . . ex-felons, i.e., bad people . . . once they are snagged by the system, usually for a minor first-time offense.

The system’s harm also includes hemorrhaging enormous sums of money for prison and punishment (it costs more to house people at Cook County Jail than it would to put them up in luxury hotels on the city’s Gold Coast), in the process tearing families apart and shattering communities. And it doesn’t keep us safe.

“It’d be really hard to have a higher recidivism rate than we have in Cook County,” Elena Quintana, executive director of the Adler Institute on Public Safety and Social Justice, told me several years ago, following the release of a study — the Juvenile Justice Needs Assessment Study, which documented serious flaws in the current justice system. The study’s primary recommendation was that young people should be kept in their communities.

“We have a moral mandate to keep kids in the community,” Quintana said. “The gestalt of (the current) system is not about reclaiming you. It’s about corralling you because you’re seen as unfit. And when you’re bounced back, you’ll be watched and rearrested.”

The North Lawndale court, presided over by Judge Colleen Sheehan, opened last September after several years of planning. The court exists in partnership with the community it serves. At its core is the concept of Restorative Justice, which is based on the healing process of the peace circle. Such circles can be used for almost any purpose, but one of their primary functions is to facilitate conflict resolution. People in conflict sit in safety together and, with the guidance of a circle keeper, talk — and listen — to one another, ultimately agreeing on a resolution. The process is voluntary . . .

Wait, voluntary? How can a hierarchical system like criminal justice function on a voluntary basis? The paradox is dealt with by allowing the defendant the choice of going through the regular judicial process or this one.

If he chooses the Restorative Justice Community Court, he winds up sitting in a circle run by trained community volunteers such as Jackie and Patricia. Other circle participants include a mentor for the defendant (sometimes a parent) as well as a volunteer who serves as a surrogate for the community, that is, someone representing the harm the defendant’s criminal action may have caused.

The participants — including the defendant — ultimately agree on a course of reparation the defendant will take. This process takes several circles to accomplish. A Cook County state’s attorney reviews and OKs the agreement; everyone signs it. When it’s completed to the satisfaction of the state’s attorney, the case is dismissed. There’s no “criminal record” to haunt the young person for the rest of his life.

As Jackie and Patricia explained, possible reparations include talking to kids in schools, writing letters to people harmed, doing work in the community gardens — and maybe getting that high school diploma, opening a bank account, getting a decent job. The woundedness and the need for healing goes in both directions.

“I’ll keep moving mountains to help kids,” Jackie said.

This is a court system that values all participants, including the defendant! “They’ve been given so much negativity” in their lives, she said. “This is a way to give them something positive.”

Indeed, court participants are is in the process of planning a “graduation ceremony” for those who successfully complete the process — in other words, celebrating their journey through the system. This is the opposite of traditional criminal justice, which wants only to leave a lasting scar on those who get entangled with it, and could care less about its effect on struggling communities.

But the Restorative Justice Community Court is still just a pilot program. It doesn’t have its own building and is only slowly getting to be known, and trusted, in North Lawndale itself, let alone in the sprawling, problem-plagued city beyond this neighborhood.

But there was a moment, as we sat talking at a café in North Lawndale, that encapsulated for me the hope and possibility of this experiment — of the criminal justice system partnering with the community, of an infusion of love, caring and respect for everyone entering this system.

At one point a young mom walks past carrying a wailing one-year-old. Jackie turns, catches the baby’s eye, begins talking to her in a nurturing voice and suddenly the baby calms herself and looks with wonder at the stranger. She starts to cry again but stops as Jackie tickles her foot and continues her soothing words. The baby’s face opens into a smile.

Case dismissed.

More articles by:

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

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