Justice for Who?: A Brief Overview of Restorative Justice in Chicago

Written By: Shiri Burson

We all know what justice looks like. We saw it on Friday October 5th when Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to second degree murder and 16 accounts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a sentence for each bullet he put into 17 year old Laquan McDonald's back. This punitive form of justice is the form of justice we all root for when it comes to those who deserve it. Lock the bad guy up and throw away the key. The trial on Friday successfully did just that. But what it didn’t do was promise safety to an entire demographic of people impacted by police brutality. Can you imagine a type of justice that seeks to preserve safety through community accountability and harm reduction? As stated in the Safe Schools Consortium “Restorative Justice is a philosophy that maintains all members of a community to have a collective responsibility to develop and sustain positive relationships in order to prevent harm from occurring, and that when conflict does occur, it is addressed in a way that focuses on the harm caused, rather than on the rule/law that was broken.” 1

Restorative Justice has been in practice for centuries. Indigenous cultures have come together in circle for conflict resolution since before written history. The term Restorative Justice can be attributed to a tiny town in Manitoba, Canada. The aboriginal people of Hollow Water worked in tandem with the Canadian judicial system to heal members of their community from a continuous cycle of sexual abuse and violence. Offenders were given the option of going to jail or going through a process of healing conducted by elders within the community, their families, healing professionals, and their victims. Community members used traditional Ojibwa rituals to hold circles where offenders were held accountable and given agreements they needed to follow.2 A similar process is happening here in Chicago. North Lawndale Restorative Justice Community Court has teamed up with the Department of Justice to hold non violent offenders between the ages of 18 and 25 accountable. Instead of incarceration offenders are given agreements to uphold that are decided by their peers and the person they’ve offended. 3

Chicago HOPES for Kids uses restorative discipline in the After School Program. This season the program team completely revamped the key components to behavior management at each shelter site. HOPES uses a behavior chart as a tool to help young ones decipher their behavior throughout the entire program day. Originally the chart was a vertical system. Everyone gets a clip with their name on it and everyone starts in the middle of the chart on “I am ready to learn.” Throughout the day clips can move up or down at the discretion of staff and volunteers depending on whether children are being cooperative, thoughtful and kind, good listeners, or could make better choices. The goal of the original behavior chart was for students to reach the top where they become “role-models.”

A State/National Americorps Member felt this system needed some improvement. Nora Laidman suggested that we hang the behavior chart horizontally, not vertically in the hope that it will “help students begin to see their choices as an ever evolving path rather than a ladder of superiority that one may slip and fall from.” Everyone still starts in the middle where they are ready to learn. However clips are moved horizontally to show growth or regression throughout the day. At any point a child’s clip can be moved in the direction of growth when their behavior improves. The program team also changed the wording. Instead of “I am being a role-model” the final destination is “I am being a leader.” Another major change within the HOPES classroom is a Feelings Finder, where young ones can place a magnet over a depicted feeling on a chart. This tool allows our youth to identify and discuss their feelings with a volunteer or staff. It can be used at the beginning of the day or during program when moods change.

Throughout Chicago there are initiatives that use restorative justice principles in order to build community and heal community. Chicago Public Schools have written into their code of conduct more restorative practices such as peace circles. In an article by Ken Butigan he explains that Peacemaking circles are

composed of victims, wrongdoers and members of the community,

it creates a container designed to hold anger, frustration, joy, truth,

conflict, opposite opinions and strong feelings. The Peacemaking Circle

process maintains that no one has the complete truth and strives to

create a bigger picture. It does this using shared agreements, rituals,

symbols and a talking piece held by the person who asks to speak.

A Circle Keeper — what we otherwise might call a facilitator —

guides the process. 4

From 2010-2014 CPS has seen a 36 percent decrease in school suspensions since implementing restorative approaches to discipline. 5 Organizations like Alternatives Inc hold Peace Circles and train youth, teachers and community members at large to become Circle Keepers.

Outside of the school halls in another institutionalized system Pamela Purdie, affiliated with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, trains officers within Chicago Police Department to become Circle Keepers. In a video produced by A Connected Chicago she describes her experience as at first being intimidating but after time she was able to see the humanness within the officers she worked with. She states “my dream [is] to bring police officers with our youth interacting together so they could see that part...human beings trying to be accepted, trying to be heard.” 6 Enacting restorative practices within CPD won’t guarantee the safety of black men like Laquan McDonald from police officers who have implicit bias, but it is the beginning to a path of healing.

Although restorative justice was created as an alternative to punitive disciplinary actions, it innately builds and rebuilds human connection and empathy. As this movement grows, so do the interconnectedness of the communities impacted. So do accountability, relationships, and healing. While restorative justice is seen in large scale institutions such as the Department of Justice, it starts small with lasting effects as can be seen at an after school program for children experiencing homelessness.


1-Safe Schools Consortium