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“Is there anybody here who didn’t need a second chance?” Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans asked Dominican University students, faculty and staff last week.  

Evans, keynote speaker for Dominican’s Black History Month, had just wrapped up a Feb. 28 presentation on Cook County’s Restorative Justice Community Courts, a new model for rehabilitating young adult offenders.

“I suspect all of us needed a second chance — somebody to speak up for us and tell us, ‘Hey, that wasn’t the thing to do,'” he said.  

Evans worked to create the county’s three restorative justice courts in three Chicago neighborhoods between 2017 and 2020. In his address, Evans emphasized the courts’ aim to end the cycle of recidivism among non-violent adult offenders ages 18 to 26 by finding alternatives to criminal prosecution.  

“We have not seen the criminal court system stop people from engaging in criminal conduct,” Evans told the crowd gathered in Martin Recital Hall.  

The Rev. Mitchell Ikenna Johnson, J.D., of the Dominican University Elders Council, an advisory board for Black World Studies majors, said Cook County is a world change-maker when it comes to the restorative justice courts. 

“Our hope is that Dominican University will graduate world changers as well,” he told the audience.  

Evans’ appearance at Dominican was hosted by the Center for Cultural Liberation, University Ministry, and Black World Studies.  

Dr. Nkuzi Nnam, founding director of Black World Studies, presented Evans with an award on behalf of Dominican, recognizing his leadership as a judge since 2001.  Nnam's students, who attended the speech, were asked to write a paper summarizing what they had learned. 

“The impact of restorative justice, according to what I've read so far, is that it is fair and, therefore, tends to clear the misconception that people have about the justice system in Illinois,” Nnam said. 

Under the Cook County restorative justice model, offenders sign a “repair harm agreement” where they admit their responsibility to the court and to the impacted victim or victims. They then agree to participate in restorative meetings where financial reimbursement and community service requirements are determined by community members, Evans said. Drug and alcohol treatment, obtaining a GED, and securing a job may also be part of the agreement.  

“If the perpetrator does all he is supposed to do under the repair harm agreement, we dismiss the case,” Evans said. 

The age group of 18 to 26 was chosen for the Restorative Justice Community Courts because scientists have determined that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, planning and social behavior, is not considered fully developed until age 25, Evans explained.  

So far, the restorative justice courts are “working very well,” Evans said, noting that an analysis of cases shows a lower recidivism rate compared to cases tried in criminal court.  

“I really liked that he emphasized that everyone deserves a second chance,” said Dominican University student Angie Munoz, who hopes to become an attorney. “We’re all human, we all make mistakes. All the advocacy he is doing for these people is amazing.” 

Student Erika Espinoza, an assistant in the Black World Studies Department who is studying criminology, political science and pre-law, said Evans’ presentation opened her eyes to not only the restorative justice court, but to the county’s problem-solving courts, like Mental Health Treatment Court, which Evans also touched upon in his speech. 

“It’s what we need,” Espinoza said of these specialty courts. “With our crime rates, I feel we need social services to help the rates go down and to prepare for the needs of the community.” 

Evans is the first African American to serve as chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court. He has held this position since 2001 and was elected to his eighth term in 2022. He also served as alderman of Chicago’s 4th Ward for 18 years and was the City Council floor leader and finance chair under Mayor Harold Washington.