Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

New court aims to redefine young adult justice in Chicago

Chicago plans to open a community court for young adult offenders in 2017 that will give them a chance to make reparations to victims and avoid a criminal record. Part 3 of 3.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A juvenile offender checks in with a judge in Ohio in 2015. Ohio and Illinois are among a growing number of states using the courts, schools, social workers, probation officers, and mental health providers to work to safely divert juveniles from detention. The money they save creates more community-based treatment and accountability plans so many youths can continue to live at home and go to school.

Two young men from Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood were charged with committing a string of burglaries. The boys, who were in their late teens and charged as adults, allegedly broke into four homes when their owners were away and stole electronics and $16,000 in cash.

The charge was a turning point for both of them. One of the young men pleaded guilty in 2011 and was given a sentence of eight years in prison. He became one of the staggering 70 percent of men in North Lawndale who have criminal records and was only released on parole earlier this year.

The other young man, however, had an experienced lawyer and was able to negotiate a plea deal that gave him a vacatable form of probation and helped him avoid jail time. He was offered a range of services including job training and mental health treatment. Five years later, he now has a wife, a baby, and a steady job in construction making $15 an hour. When he completed probation last month, his criminal charge was wiped clean.

“That outcome is very, very, very rare in the current system,” says Cliff Nellis, the executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, which represented him. But thanks to the work of Mr. Nellis and others, that outcome is about to become a lot more common for young adults in North Lawndale.

Early next year, Cook County will open a Restorative Justice Community Court in the neighborhood to give 18- to 26-year-olds charged with nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies the opportunity to work in the community and to avoid a criminal record. The court comes amid new research on the mental development of young adults and a growing trend toward alternative courts that make community members part of the justice process. Advocates say that such courts can help address some of the important questions of equity that have plagued the US justice system in recent years.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Colleen Sheehan, who will preside over the new court, says that she sees the court as a way of getting to some of the deep issues driving young adult crime.

“I’ve been a judge for almost 15 years and perhaps what led me to this in the first place was the things that I saw,” says Judge Sheehan. “I saw people who are in a lot of pain. I see people who are born into circumstances that I don’t know how anybody crawls out of. And I see that those stories are not always told. We oftentimes look at a situation or a crime and we’re often looking at the very surface of it. We make all sorts of judgments about who the people are involved and what that type of person is. And this is really a way to explore who these people are who are involved in the crime and victims who are involved in the crime.”

When should a youth be tried as an adult?

The court’s innovative approach is rooted in recent neurological science, which suggests a young person’s reasoning and self-control are not fully developed until they are in their mid-20s. While more cognitively developed than those under 18 – who are generally served by the juvenile justice system, where the focus is more on rehabilitation than punishment – young adults are more impulsive, less able to control their emotions and less likely to think about the consequences of their actions than mature adults.

Recognizing these differences, some countries have started to treat young adults more like juveniles in their justice system. In Sweden, for example, courts can treat young adults as juveniles until they are 25, and in Germany, all 18- to 21-year-olds are tried in juvenile courts.

Closer to home, legislators in Illinois, Connecticut, and Vermont considered proposals this year to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21. None of the proposals were successful, but youth advocates say that the new court in Cook County is a step in the right direction.  

“It is far too often that a young person is found guilty of an offense in their early 20s and that will stay on their record for the remainder of their lives, impacting their ability to gain employment, to get an education, and qualify for loans, be it student loans or mortgages,” says Keenan-Devlin, who works with both juveniles and young adults involved in the criminal as head of the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy. “That’s wrong, that’s wrong. This [court] tries to repair that wrong in an innovative community-based setting.”

When it opens next year, offenders who are referred to the court will be asked to participate in a “peace circle,” which comes out of indigenous American traditions and would include the victim of their crime and community representatives supporting both the victim and perpetrator. The group would discuss what led the perpetrator to commit the crime and work together to create a “repair of harm” agreement.

“We would expect that justice would require that the perpetrator would admit what took place, but under this balanced and restorative justice approach, the perpetrator would be able to see how his or her conduct affected the North Lawndale community and impacted specifically the victim of the crime,” explains Chief Judge Timothy Evans of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

'The community gets back a productive citizen'

For example, if a young adult referred to the court stole a television in order to support a drug habit, the repair of harm agreement could include having the perpetrator work in the community for a certain amount of time. A portion of the money the perpetrator earned would be used to purchase a new television for the victim. Another portion of their earnings would go toward the perpetrator receiving drug treatment in order to help reduce the risk of them reoffending.

If the offender meets the requirements laid out in the repair of harm agreement, the presiding judge may expunge the perpetrator’s record. 

“The community gets back a productive citizen,” says Judge Evans. “The victim is less likely to be victimized again by this so called perpetrator, and the perpetrator instead of having to live a life of suffering from being a perpetual perpetrator will be welcomed back into the community.”

The court will also try to address some of the underlying issues driving crime in the neighborhood by offering a variety of community services. In the same building as the court, there will be organizations that provide mental health services, drug counseling, job training, and skills building.

“Even if somebody from the street who was not court-involved walked in and needed services, they would be served,” explains Nancy Michaels, the associate director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at Roosevelt University, who worked closely with Judge Sheehan to develop the initial plans for the court. “It would be kind of a beacon in the community in a number of ways.”

If the court is successful, both Evans and Sheehan hope to expand the model to other communities in Chicago that are struggling with high levels of crime and incarceration. Chicago has seen more than 730 murders this year, a number the city has not reached since 1998.

“If this works, the idea is that this could save a lot of money in the long term” by helping people avoid prison, says Sheehan. “It could help the community organize itself in a way to figure out what the solution is for their community.”

Nissa Rhee is a 2016 John Jay/Solutions Journalism Network Fellow.

Correction: This article was updated to clarify the headline.

•  •  •

Part 1: Illinois rethinks its approach to juvenile justice
Part 2: At America's largest juvenile detention facility, teaching kids to ‘think slow’
Part 3: New court aims to redefine young adult justice in Chicago

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