AVONDALE — A year after opening, Avondale’s restorative justice community court has its first graduate.
The court, 3647 W. George St., was established to divert people charged with nonviolent crimes out of the traditional criminal justice system and into a program that focuses on rehabilitation, community accountability and repairing harm someone creates through crime.
Joe, a Logan Square resident, was facing a fine and possibly other penalties for drug possession with intent to distribute. He completed restorative justice court in about three months, allowing his criminal charges to be dropped. Court staff held a pizza party last week to celebrate.
Joe — Block Club is not using his full name — said the peace circles and other interventions helped him realize he could have harmed people in the community by selling unregulated marijuana. He has changed paths and now runs his own food business.
“It opened my eyes to a different outlook,” he said.
The city’s first restorative justice court opened in North Lawndale in 2017. Cook County officials cut the ribbon on the Avondale court in August 2020, around the same time they opened another location in Englewood.
The Avondale court is led by Beatriz Santiago, Cook County Circuit Court judge.
The three courts all operate the same way: People 18-26 years old can have their cases processed through restorative justice court if the person charged and the person who was harmed agree to participate.
From there, participants join a peace circle under the supervision of a circle keeper who helps them create a Repair of Harm agreement submitted to the court. Once they complete that agreement, participants can have their charges dropped or arrests expunged.
Participants also get access to mental health, education and job placement services.
The pandemic has slowed operations, but the three courts combined have had 188 participants and 95 graduates as of the end of June, according to court officials. Of that, 15 have participated in the Avondale court, said Mary Wisniewski, spokeswoman for the chief judge’s office.
Joe, who is white and older than most of the participants, acknowledged he is not the program’s target demographic. Officials launched the courts to dismantle what they described as a racist criminal justice system that disproportionately harms Black and Latino Chicagoans, particularly young people.
But Joe said the court has helped his life and he hopes it can expand.
For his Repair of Harm agreement, Joe helped out at a local food pantry and did community service. Every week, he spoke with a court-appointed social worker who helped him reflect on his actions and build a better future, including launch his own business, he said.
The traditional court system wouldn’t have had the same effect, he said.
“It wouldn’t be any lessons learned. It wouldn’t be any realizations, any time to reflect. It would just be, ‘OK, we’re sentencing you to this. You have to pay this.’ And it would be nothing. And then you’re done,” he said.
“I think this is great, especially for people who are in that younger age bracket where they can assess their life. They can say, ‘OK, am I on the right path?'”
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