Community court opens on Chicago's West Side: 'a court like none other'

It’s one of the chronic problems of the criminal justice system: a revolving door of repeat offenders shuttling back and forth between prison and neighborhood.

Now, a new experimental court opening on Chicago’s west side aims to break that cycle. It puts the community in charge of deciding what to do with offenders, and their victims.

A ribbon cutting took place Thursday at a new courtroom on Chicago’s west side that doesn't look like a courtroom at all, and that's the whole point.

"It is a court like none other,” said Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans.

Evans joined a who's who of the criminal justice system to dedicate what's being called the "Restorative Justice Community Court" -- housed in a social services building in the North Lawndale neighborhood.
"This is huge in terms of what it means for us to tackle the conditions that we see throughout our communities,” said Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Namely the staggeringly high percentage of young men in and out of prison, and the impact of crime on their victims and community. The new community court is aimed at defendants charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors, between 18 and 26 years old, who live in North Lawndale.

Rather than go through the traditional court system, they'll have an opportunity to take part in a "peace circle" made up of community leaders, the victim of their crime and led by Cook County Judge Colleen F. Sheehan.

"And they all decide together what repairs that harm from crime, so the victim has a say, the defendant has a say, they're all responsible for trying to figure out how to repair that harm from crime,” said Sheehan.

This experimental court will start at the end of August, and if it's successful, Chief Judge Evans says similar courts could be established in other crime-ridden neighborhoods throughout the city of Chicago.

"This is just the start. Englewood, we are on our way. Roseland, we're on our way,” Evans said.

And for critics who say community court is nothing more than a way to pamper and protect criminals, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli has the following to say.

"I say do you think it's working now? Do you think we're doing the right thing in the criminal court system now? Because I see a lot of violence out there. I see a lot of people returning from prison and going back to prison,” she said.

The community court is funded with a 200-thousand dollar grant from the Justice Department, and will initially handle about 100 cases a year.

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