Chicago is well-known for more than just being a beautiful city. Like many other large cities, Chicago has a major problem with juvenile delinquency. Every day more and more organizations, both new and old, work to change the system that is more punitive, than rehabilitative to the youth it serves.
One of the up and coming initiatives for addressing criminal behavior among young people is Restorative Justice. Instead of looking at the crime as an offense against the state and punitively throwing the offender into jail, the system would look at the crime at the victim/offender/community level. There would be a dialogue between the victim, the offender, and the community affected that would require the offender to take responsibility for the harm caused. Some of the faces of this would be an apology or community service depending on the nature of the crime.
The Restorative Justice of Project NIA has been involved in this fight in Chicago since 2009. They are working to educate people about the current system; its failures, the need for change, and a call for better research on the effects of the justice system. Project NIA’s three stated goals are to empower community members to become leaders in this fight, to create effective alternatives to the criminal legal systems that are community-based, and to put an end to juvenile incarceration.
One of the most impressive things about Project NIA is that they are addressing the issue from so many different angles. Through research and workshops, Project NIA educates people about the criminal justice system. The research is used to collaborate with other communities who may be interested in effecting the same change in their own cities, as well as, stakeholders in Chicago. They have developed a curriculum that utilizes popular education to teach communities about the criminal justice system. Project NIA’s research is also addressing the issues of suspensions in school (due to zero tolerance policies), as well as, some alternatives to calling the police when it comes to youth.
NIA currently has two main advocacy initiatives: the UN-marked Campaign and the Campaign to Close Illinois Youth Prisons. The UN-marked Campaign is an advocacy movement that makes it easier to expunge a juvenile’s record. The goals are to educate youth and adults about the importance of expunging records, to change the high costs associated with expunging the records, and to effect legislative changes that automatically expunge minor arrests once juveniles turn 18. The Campaign to Close Illinois Youth Prisons has several goals, but chief among them is to educate youth and adults around the dangers and ineffectiveness of the juvenile justice system.
In addition to advocacy, Project NIA has several volunteer-led and run initiatives for intervention. They are Girl Talk, Circles and Ciphers, Families in Touch, and Community Peacemaking and Talking Circles. As the name indicates, Girl Talk is a project that works with incarcerated girls in Cook County. The meetings are bi-weekly film screenings, followed by small group discussions and art projects by participants and volunteers. The Circles and Ciphers initiative is a program designed to develop leaders out-of-court-involved, gang-involved, and prison-involved “Black and Brown” boys. “Through the use of improvisational hip-hop freestyle ciphers, as well as talking and peacemaking circles, participants will respond to this tragic pattern as community organizers: they will design a new, autonomous, nonviolent gang tailored to their unique needs.” The Families in Touch initiative is designed to facilitate family visitation for young women in a jail in Warrenville. Lastly, the Community Peacemaking and Talking Circles is an initiative designed to build community among victims, offenders, and community via the use of different types of circles that facilitate communication.
An example of a successful application of a similar program is Gacaca; Rwanda’s post conflict justice program. The Gacaca system uses community based courts to try suspected perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. The offenders are required to complete community service in the communities that they committed crimes in. There should be no societal limitations on rehabilitating a person and saving our youth from a broken system is extremely important.
By Melissa Bautista