During her years working in federal prisons, Adler University’s Elena Quintana, Ph.D., has seen how the traditional criminal justice system fails. “We’ve spent so much time criminalizing people instead of restoring them to their fullest potential,” says the Institute for Public Safety and Social Justice Executive Director. Now, she’s investigating the effectiveness of a groundbreaking alternative: the Restorative Justice Community Court in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood.
One of the first courts of its kind in the nation, the court provides young adults aged 18-26 charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors a way to avoid incarceration by making amends and reintegrating into the community. The community-focused model is a “seismic change” in thinking, says Quintana, whose team received a $130,000 Robert R. McCormick Foundation grant to measure the court’s impact. She spoke with us about the court’s history, how it operates, and its potential to reshape the justice system.
Q: How does the court work? Walk us through an example case.
A: Say you are accused of drug possession. You have a choice of the traditional criminal court, where you’re likely to get probation or minimum jail time, or, alternatively, you can go through the Restorative Justice Community Court process and take responsibility for harm you’ve caused. In that case, you would create what’s called a repair of harm agreement and if you complete all the terms of that agreement, the arrest will be erased as if it never happened. The benefits are so tangible.
Q: What exactly is the repair of harm agreement?
A: Repair of harm agreements promote a wider idea of accountability. The defendant is held accountable and the community is also responsible for the defendant, enlisted to contribute to the individual’s full potential. It provides a foundation for the defendant’s long-term success.
Q: What might a typical agreement look like?
A: It includes restitution, for example, the individual repaying a victim or doing a service such as mowing the victim’s lawn. It also includes access to services for the defendant through a dedicated case manager, such as substance abuse counseling, employment development, and housing assistance. Time frames vary, but usually agreements run six months or more.
Q: How did the court go from idea to reality?
A: Advocacy organizations had been asking Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans to create more restorative options for young adults, which he supported. Judge Colleen Sheehan, who works in the juvenile justice court, loved the idea and, in 2014, she took the lead designing a court in collaboration with a community advisory group. Using a $200,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, they trained 150 people in restorative justice and set up the court. On September 7, 2017, the court heard its first case.
Q: Why North Lawndale for the court?
A: It had to be in a community where there were already service providers working with people, something accessible and hyper local. That’s why they picked North Lawndale. It had a Restorative Justice hub that serves young people and emerging adults likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.
Q: What questions are you asking in your evaluation to assess the court’s effectiveness?
A: If you have the same type of case assigned to the traditional system versus the restorative justice model, what’s the defendant’s experience? Where do they end up? What is the likelihood of getting arrested again? How has the court changed the community? How will it change the overall system? We’ll have qualitative and quantitative data about satisfaction with the process and gather information from all community members involved in each case. It’s important to capture the whole story with integrity so others can see learning opportunities.
Q: Why should society invest in restorative justice?
A: We want a positive return on investment by investing in human potential. Every dollar we spend on criminal justice should improve public safety and fulfill potential. Instead, the current system degrades both. It produces a long-term dependence on incarceration that diminishes people’s capacity to live independent lives. I meet adults who have been institutionalized their entire life with no ability to contribute in a meaningful way to the outside world. That’s criminal on the part of the larger society; we are investing in the creation and perpetuation of a permanent underclass.