Restorative Justice in Cook CountyMay 19, 2021 12:01AM ● By Editor
By Chloe Blackburn - Exclusive to Boreal Community Media - May 18, 2021.
Restorative Justice has been a topic in Cook County for years: there have been trainings, requests for volunteers, and requests for implementing the process in our community. But what is Restorative Justice? What does it mean and who does it help? I recently had the opportunity to speak with Inger Andress, who volunteers as project coordinator of the Cook County MN Restorative Justice Program and provided me with an introduction to this community healing approach.
Restorative Justice focuses on repairing harms with positive conflict resolution. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of restorative justice, it can be defined as an approach to justice in which the victim and the offender meet with the program’s trained facilitators individually with their support person to tell their part of the story. Over time, if both consent, the facilitators organize a meeting together, allowing respectful and open communication which results in conflict resolution. Cases are referred to the council by law enforcement, the County Attorney's office, and the probation office. Ms. Andress emphasizes that collectively, “this community needs to learn how to communicate in a respectful, humanized way, and allow there to be peacemaking with conflict resolution over harms done.”
Restorative Justice has been active in Cook County for multiple years, but recently made some changes that will help solidify its position in our community. Ms. Andress serves on the board of the North Shore Health Care Foundation (NSHCF) and is also the Chair of the Children’s Mental Health and Substance Misuse Committee. The NSHCF just completed a strategic planning session and an outcome of that session was to become an incubator for programs in the community. Last year, NSHCF hired Valerie Eliasen to be its first full-time Executive Director. Simultaneously, the Oral Health Task Force moved under the umbrella of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic which freed up resources for another incubator project. Ms. Andress suggested that Restorative Justice would be a good fit, and the board voted it in.
Cook County MN Restorative Justice is overseen by a volunteer Advisory Committee which includes representation from: Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Cook County Board of Commissioners, the County Attorney’s Office, Probations, Grand Portage Tribal Council, Grand Portage Health & Human Services, Cook County Public Health and Human Services, Cook County ISD 166 Schools, the Violence Prevention Center, participant and facilitator advocates and an administration team including the North Shore Health Care Foundation’s Executive Director Valerie Marasco Eliasen. The advisory board was formed to make the large decisions for the program: what are the goals? how should the program be structured? what grants should be applied for and how should they be used? and when/where should training occur? Along with their due diligence with setting into policy memoradums of understanding with case referrals systems. In addition, community volunteers are trained in the mechanics of the restorative justice project and act as advocates for individuals that choose to take part in the process.
Restorative Justice facilitators are trained to work with victims and offenders. They are there to help create a safe space for conversation, to heal, and to bring reparation. Opportunities for the process are referred by law enforcement and the county attorney’s office. Eighty percent of the cases involve youth, and sometimes the programs works with diversion for probation as well. The process allows the issue to be addressed and reparations to be made without the offender receiving a criminal record and not only feel safe next time the participants encounter each other in town but to transmute the conflict to being a supportive connection.
The process for Restorative Justice is similar everywhere. In Cook County, volunteer advocates will meet with both parties, the victim and the offender, or, in some cases, two people who have “equally offended each other”. The facilitators attend individual meetings with the participants, allowing them to have courage, and feel listened to and respected. Then they meet with the other party, listen to their story, and make sure that they are supported as well. After this, if participants come to a point where they feel that they can meet, (their choice), they make the decision of whether or not they are ready to be in a face-to-face conference. There is a list of possible things for reparation, but ideally, the participants organically work through that. If there's a victim involved, facilitators will ask them “what will it take for you to feel safe around this individual?” With this, they can think through what's really important to them, which makes it a lot more authentic and productive. When speaking with Ms. Andress, she explained that “We try to have it be just an organic conversation between the two of them eventually, and that's where the magic happens, because most of the time they didn’t realize the rest of the story behind it (they’re each allowed to share their side of the story).” They have to sit silently, listen, and respect what each other is saying.
Alongside situations brought by law enforcement and the County Attorney's office, the Restorative Justice Program is interested in helping de-escalate situations at ISD 166. Perhaps volunteers could be available at the school every other week to help with any identified conflicts. The program is growing and looking for ways to resolve conflicts in our community.
To keep the program strong, a two-day free training is being offered on May 27th and 28th from 8:30 AM - 4:30 PM in Grand Portage. The training is open to anyone in the community interested in understanding the Restorative Justice process in Cook County. Attendance does not commit you to the program. You can register online at www.NorthShoreHealthCareFoundation.org.
The more Cook County residents know about and understand the process, the more successful the program will be. Helping our local youth and other residents understand that actions have consequences before those consequences are dire, will strengthen our community and help us all live together more peacefully.