Cook County to create 'community court' in North Lawndale

A community court allowing young non-violent offenders to take accountability for their actions instead of serving jail time will open next year in the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side, the Circuit Court of Cook County announced Thursday.

The Restorative Justice Community Court will hear nonviolent felony and misdemeanors cases involving adults between 18 and 26 years old who reside in North Lawndale and volunteer for the program, according to the county. It is expected to open in early 2017.

The “restorative justice” concept allows defendants to take accountability for their actions and work to repair any harm done through restitution, community service, letters of apology, and peace circles. Defendants who successfully complete the program will have charges dropped and the arrest expunged.

“The Community Court sends a message to the public that we are committed to resolving conflicts in our neighborhoods in a way that both helps nonviolent offenders take responsibility for their actions while also providing restitution and restoration to victims,” Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in the statement.

Nearly seven out of ten adult males who live in North Lawndale have a felony conviction, including Allen Bradley.

FOX 32: Would something like this have helped you when you were younger?

"I believe so. A whole lot would have helped me," Bradley said.

Colleen Sheehan is a judge in Cook County.

"It is a voluntary process by which the defendant and the victim and the community would come together, and they would take a look at how we would repair the harm from crime," Sheehan said.

Sheehan is spearheading the project, and she says rather than go through the legal meat grinder that would likely result in incarceration or a felony conviction, the volunteer defendants will have their cases heard in the neighborhood with community input.

"The community is an essential part of this, where they would participate and they would take ownership of the court and take ownership of identifying what the solutions are," Sheehan said.

And instead of prison or a felony, the defendants will be offered neighborhood help.

"Ranging from workforce development, job placement, job training to mental health counseling, family counseling. drug counseling and after school programs. Extracurricular activities, getting back into school," said Cliff Nellis of Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

That's something former defendants like Allen Bradley wish would have been available to them.

"I think it would be good that the Lawndale community could have its own justice," Bradley said.

The court will be funded by a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, according to the county. Cook County was one of 10 sites selected for a grant out of 70 jurisdictions applying.

The program is expected to serve about 100 defendants per year, according to the county. The grant covers a two-year period.