Can the criminal justice system in this country be fixed? Community-based restorative justice is showing the way.

At 20 years old, Anita Stevens was in college studying to become a nurse when North Lawndale police arrested her. Anita remembers the shock of handcuffs gripping her wrists and sitting in the back of a police car, wondering if her life would ever be the same.

Anita’s fears were not unwarranted. In an instant, her future possibilities turned bleak.

As an emerging adult from North Lawndale facing the justice system, her chances of being caught in a devastating cycle of arrest-incarcerate-release-repeat had just escalated. A city report on youth 17 and under states that nearly two-thirds of youth in Cook County relapse into crime. And end up incarcerated…again. Not only is incarceration costly, it’s deadly. The mortality rate (mostly due to homicide) for those youth is 4 times higher than the general population of their peers.

Without the Restorative Justice Community Court serving the North Lawndale neighborhood, Anita might have never been afforded the chance to reinvest in herself or her community. “Restorative justice gives you the opportunity to make up for what you did wrong,” Anita said.

Lawndale Christian Legal Center has been grounded in restorative justice practices from its beginnings, following the community’s needs as a guide. That’s why, several years ago, we began to work closely with North Lawndale’s Community Restorative Justice Hub–a grassroots coalition of leaders in Lawndale who shared that goal of moving toward a new way of doing things, sharing our vision for making sure justice was truly served in our community. And in 2017, the RJCC was born, launched out of an innovative collaboration between the North Lawndale Community Restorative Justice Hub and Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans of the Circuit Court of Cook County. LCLC continues to support the RJCC as the lead community agency responsible for the coordination of holistic social and legal services for RJCC participants in North Lawndale.

How is restorative-justice-grounded court different?

The community court operates weekly, outside of a typical courtroom setting. While many courtrooms are adversarial environments, the RJCC seeks to level the playing field. Defendants sit across the table from a judge, facing them eye-to-eye. The court’s focus is less on punishment for a broken law and instead emphasizes relational harm and the actions needed to repair the community. The defendant volunteers to participate in a restorative justice circle healing process with affected community members to reach a Repair of Harm Agreement (ROHA), which could include letters of apology and community service. A defendant, like Anita, is also supported with case management and offered the services they need–anything from mental health counseling to parenting classes–to successfully rejoin the community.

Restorative justice gives you the opportunity to make up for what you did wrong.

“Restorative justice represents a complete paradigm shift from viewing harm as a violation of the law to understanding it as a violation of people and relationships that requires accountability and healing,” says Ashlee George, associate director of Impact Justice’s Restorative Justice Project. “This approach gives all communities, especially marginalized ones, a powerful tool to replace the criminalization of youth of color.”

Anita rose to the challenge, working hard to remain accountable to her restoration agreements. As the pandemic swept the country in early 2020, she watched the death toll rise and faced the added complexity of completing her tasks alongside social distancing requirements. Anita was also pregnant, and during a doctor’s visit, discovered she’d contracted COVID-19. When her baby was born, she was placed in isolation. Due to the pandemic, the RJCC paused proceedings for three months. All around her, fear and uncertainty lingered.

Despite COVID, Anita's motivation and drive allowed her to complete her case in under a year, record breaking time.

While the process of reintegration is often difficult, under the restorative justice model, everyone from the lawyers, social workers, to the community members, are participating in the healing process. Instead of continuing to entrench a neighborhood in trauma, violence, and death, true restoration is available.

Anita credits motherhood as key in helping her stay focused during her case. “Everything I do is about her,” Anita said, gesturing to her daughter. Now, Anita has developed her own brand and runs a small business selling accessories and children’s clothing. When Judge Patricia Spratt congratulated Anita, she noted that Anita is “exactly the person who would benefit from the Restorative Justice Community Court.”

Feeling empowered and inspired by her experience with the RJCC, Anita glows with promise. She believes in her ability to make changes and to support herself and her daughter. She loves the idea that now she is someone who could serve as a mentor to others.

I feel like a new person.

There are so many like Anita out there, whose stories don’t seem like they’re going to end well. Not only here in North Lawndale, but in communities all across the country. But we believe community-based restorative justice can transform our current justice system and change the endings of these stories. For young people, like Anita, this approach can provide the kind of justice we’d want for our own children – one that restores lives, not destroys them.

Interested in hearing more of Anita’s story? Watch this video.