CHICAGO (WLS) -- More than two dozen Chicagoans now have an opportunity to live their lives differently.
Wednesday marked the first graduation for the Circuit Court of Cook County's Restorative Justice Community Court in Englewood.
Twenty-nine young men and women now have clean slates after graduating from a six to nine-month-long program teaching participants conflict resolution and job skills. It even provides emotional support for overcoming trauma.
"Without the peace circle keeper, the judge and Fred back there, I don't know where I would be today," graduate Jayveon Reed said. "Instead, I'm here talking in front of you guys."
Those in charge say one mistake should not ruin a life.
"We're here also today to let you know we value you," Chief Judge Tim Evans said. "We know the trauma that you had to overcome in order to step into this room today."
A criminal record can serve as a barrier for people trying to find jobs, and experts say desperation can lead recidivism.
The Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council estimates that of the people released from Illinois prisons each year, 43% go back within three years. And that number increases with time.
"Most of the participants, the defendants, they look like me," Asst. State's Attorney Jamal "Jay" Jackson said. "So, it's a pleasure for me, you know, they see me, I see them and give them the 'what's up' nod. And they know, I'm here on your behalf."
The program is for people between the ages of 18 and 26 who have committed crimes that are not violent. After the program is successfully completed, their records are expunged.
"I'm happy that it's over," Reed said. "You've gotta be thankful, you gotta take it as a lesson and not a loss."
Those in charge of the court program hope to expand restorative work across Cook County. They're also asking for community volunteers to serve as mentors to participants.