CHICAGO (WLS) — Sixteen people graduated from a Chicago restorative justice program that gives them a chance to change their lives by helping them find jobs and support their families rather than sit behind bars.
“I was about to be facing a couple years in there. So I’m glad they put me in this program. Really glad actually,” said Marcos Morones, graduate.
“For them to give him this opportunity was a blessing, to give him the steps on what to do was very helpful,” said his wife Judith Fuentes.
One of the important elements of the program is their peace circle, in which participants talk openly about their lives, the crimes that led them to the program, and how they can get back on the right path.
“They have to think about how they can repair their lives, which is extremely important,” said program coordinator Margaret Kulujian.
The participants have all been charged with nonviolent offenses. Rather than serve time, in order to graduate they need to fulfill three tasks: Make restitution for those they harmed; write and apology letter; and make a plan for the future to stay out of trouble.
While the majority of those sentenced to prison commit other crimes when they’re released, a very small percentage of restorative justice graduates find themselves in trouble again. And at a much lower cost to taxpayers than jail.
“A lot of them, they made a mistake, and they should not have a felony conviction haunt them for the rest of their life,” said circuit court judge Beatriz Santiago.
Graduates also have their criminal records expunged, giving participants like Morones a clean start.
“It made me reflect on a couple things I should’ve done right from the beginning,” he said.
Organizers said the primary goal of the program is healing rather than punishment, which is what offenders face in prison. Judges involved with the program said they would like to see it continue to expand to all parts of the county.