Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin hosted a town hall meeting Monday to gather community input on the creation of a community court in Austin.
About 40 residents, local leaders, judges and several others discussed the functions of a community court and the logistics of how one could be established in the neighborhood at BUILD Chicago’s offices, 5100 W. Harrison St.
Boykin said he decided to hold the meeting after people throughout the 1st District expressed interest in starting a community court in Austin.
“I’m one who believes in restorative justice; all of us ought to believe in restorative justice,” Boykin said. “And that means that we can reduce the jail population, reduce the number of African-American males in particular who are incarcerated in jails throughout the county, especially here in Cook County.”
Similar to the Restorative Justice Community Court, which opened in neighboring North Lawndale in July 2017, the community court in Austin would work to reduce recidivism and provide a pathway for offenders to answer to their crimes without receiving stiff sentences. The North Lawndale was the first community court created in Illinois.
At Monday’s meeting, panelists Kellye Keyes Jackson and Jose Wilson, steering committee members of the North Lawndale court, spoke about how it operates.
Because community courts are created by community members to address specific needs of their area, they can vary in the types of cases handled, the age range of defendants and general overall operations, Jackson said.
The Lawndale court receives cases from the Cook County State’s Attorney and holds hearings in UCAN‘s offices at 3605 W. Fillmore St.
In contrast to traditional courts, judges, offenders and community members sit in a peace circle to discuss how the offender’s crime has impacted the community, then they create a “repair of harm agreement” – a document listing what they can do to repair that harm. If an offender abides by the agreement and remain crime free through a probation period, the case can be kept off their record.
The North Lawndale court handles cases of offenders between 18- and 26-years-old; have committed a non-violent crime or misdemeanor; live or are active in the North Lawndale neighborhood; have a non-violent criminal history; and accept responsibility for the harm of their crime.
Wilson said the criteria were tailored to the needs of the North Lawndale neighborhood, which had seen large numbers of youths being convicted of felonies for non-violent crimes, making it difficult for them to find jobs and labeling them felons for the rest of their lives.
“If we can give these a priority, then what happens is that these young men will not have the stigma of having a felony background, they can have the opportunity to seek the American dream,” Wilson said.
He said it’s important for community members within Austin to be involved in the creation of their own court so that it best suits their neighborhood.
When asked by moderator Donald Dew, president and CEO of Habilitative Systems Inc., about the impact the new court has had on North Lawndale, Jackson said because the court is still in its pilot year, there is not yet data available to prove its effectiveness. The first evaluation of the court will be available in September.
When community members in the meeting questioned how the court would be funded, Jackson said Austin would most likely have to secure funding from multiple public and private groups just as the North Lawndale court did. Although there are start-up costs, such as peace circle training, there would be savings to taxpayers with less incarceration, Jackson said.
“We also have a chance to keep you out of the criminal justice system, which is nothing but a swirling whirlpool,” Circuit Court Judge Patricia S. Spratt said. “If you can get to someone face to face and if I can tell you as a victim how you affected my life and you, as an offender, can tell me what brought you to that moment, we have a chance for a dialogue.”
No future meetings on the community court have been scheduled, but more opportunities for Austin residents to give their input will be scheduled before planning committees are formed, said Anthony Beckham, outreach coordinator for Boykin’s office.