The program offers a chance to have non-violent felony or misdemeanor charges dismissed and court records expunged
CHICAGO (WLS) -- Michelle Dennis just got another chance for success.
"All we needed was a fighting chance and you guys gave us that," Dennis said.
Once caught in the revolving door of drug arrests and jail time, the 29-year-old single mother of a teenage son is now one of over 80 graduates of the North Lawndale Restorative Justice Community Court.
"A lot of people call this a second chance program. I don't, it's a first chance," said Judge Patricia Spratt, the presiding judge for North Lawndale RJCC.
A ceremony was held Thursday morning on the campus of community advocate UCAN Chicago. That's where graduate and new father Rayshawn Fields shared a rap song he composed about his experience.
"The end is not an end just another place," he said.
It's the largest graduation in the court's five-year history,
Since there have been no in-person ceremonies since the pandemic, Thursday's event included participants who've completed the program over the last three years.
"Restorative Justice showed me I won't be defined by my mistakes," said Conwanis Glasco, a program graduate.
Started 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 say punishment is not the only answer. Healing is the best answer," said Cook County Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans.
The program requires participants to repair the harm they've caused. They participate in peace circles and get help addressing any addiction and mental health issues they may have.
Restorative Justice Community Courts have also already been opened on the North and South sides.
RJCC officials said, of the 256 graduates they've had since the program started, over 80% do not go back into the criminal justice system.
Jarrell Davis hopes to be among that group. With his gun charge behind him, the 22-year-old said the sky is the limit.
"I came a long way from where I started," he said.