CHICAGO—In most courts in the Cook County district, a person accused of a crime will have their case decided in a courtroom, by a judge. There’s little attempt to tackle any issues underlying the crime, and few alternatives to incarceration if they’re found guilty.
A new court opening this summer in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood is looking to change that equation for some offenders. The Restorative Justice Community Court will offer select young people charged with non-violent felonies or misdemeanors another way to redress alleged wrongs. Backed by a Department of Justice grant, the court will test whether its more holistic approach to confronting crime—offering mediation between the accused and accuser, and restitution targeted at the local community—will result in fewer young adults going to jail.
“It seeks to really create a new way of looking at the harm from crime,” said Judge Colleen Sheehan, the court’s overseer, adding that its processes will emphasize crimes’ effects on the neighborhood and amplify victims’ voices. She’s been working since 2014 to integrate restorative justice into the circuit court, per a directive from its chief judge.
The Circuit Court of Cook County was one of 10 jurisdictions around the country chosen last year to receive two years of funding, or $200,000, to pilot a community court—the likes of which, the Justice Department played up in its announcement, “can reduce crime and substance use, increase services to victims, reduce unnecessary use of jail, save money, and improve public confidence in justice.” The North Lawndale grant is administered by the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership between New York state’s court system and a community-development charity.