North Lawndale Restorative Justice Community Court helps dismiss and clear non-violent felony and misdemeanor charges

CHICAGO (WLS) — Michelle Dennis just got another shot at success.

“All we needed was a fighting chance and you gave it to us,” Dennis said.

Once caught in the revolving door of drug arrests and prison sentences, the 29-year-old single mother of a teenage son is now one of more than 80 graduates from North Lawndale’s Restorative Justice Community Court.

“A lot of people call it a second chance program. I don’t, it’s a first chance,” said Judge Patricia Spratt, presiding judge at the North Lawndale RJCC.

A ceremony was held Thursday morning at the UCAN Chicago Community Advocate campus. This is where grad and new dad Rayshawn Fields shared a rap song he composed about his experience.

“The end is not an end just another place,” he said.

This is the largest graduation ceremony in the court’s five-year history,

Since there have been no in-person ceremonies since the pandemic, Thursday’s event included attendees who have completed the program within the past three years.

“Restorative justice showed me that my mistakes would not define me,” said Conwanis Glasco, a graduate of the program.

Launched in 2017, the Restorative Justice Community Court is the first of its kind in the state of Illinois. It gives adults between the ages of 18 and 26 a chance to have their non-violent felony or misdemeanor charges dismissed and their court records expunged.

“We’re saying punishment is not the only answer. Healing is the best answer,” said Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans.

The program asks participants to repair the harm they have caused. They participate in peace circles and get help with any addictions and mental health issues they may have.

Community restorative justice courts have also already been opened on the north and south sides.

RJCC officials said that of the 256 graduates they have had since the program began, more than 80% do not return to the criminal justice system.

Jarrell Davis hopes to be part of this group. With his weapon load behind him, the 22-year-old said the sky was the limit.

“I’ve come a long way from where I started,” he said.

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