Catholic Lawyers Guild helps pass restorative justice law

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Supporters of a new Illinois law that says whatever is said in restorative justice proceedings cannot be used later in court are hoping it will lead to more conflicts being resolved outside of the traditional justice system.

The Illinois Restorative Justice Privilege Act, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law in July, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022. It was shepherded for more than five years by members of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago, along with groups that work in the area of restorative justice and others, including victims’ rights groups.

Precious Blood Father David Kelly, executive director of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, said restorative justice works by bringing the community together to listen to both people who have done harm and those who were harmed to try to figure out what the person who did the harm needs to avoid doing it again, and what can be done to repair the harm to the extent possible.

“We bring people together and find a way to deal with whatever the issue might be, rather than just punishment and isolation and banishment, which we have now,” Kelly said.

But restorative justice depends on building relationships and allowing everyone — offenders and victims — to feel safe enough to speak honestly about what led to the incident or what its effect was.

Before now, defense attorneys often advised their clients not to participate in restorative justice proceedings, because of the possibility that too much honesty could backfire and create more legal problems down the road, said Matthew Simon, former president and restorative justice committee chairman for the of the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago.

“They would tell them not to do it, and rightfully so,” Simon said.

Once the law goes into effect, anything said in a restorative justice proceeding, whether a peace circle or mediation session or something else, will have the same level of confidentiality as communications between an attorney and client, he said.

The law applies to restorative justice proceedings that are run under the auspices of the justice system, such as three neighborhood courts that have been set up in Chicago for young adults charged with non-violent crimes, but also those run by community organizations aiming to keep conflicts from ever making it to the court system and those run by schools.

Kelly said that restorative justice is often best for everyone, including offenders, victims and the rest of the community.

“Restorative justice is about accountability,” Kelly said. “It really wants to hold people accountable, needs to hold people accountable for their actions.”

That kind of accountability is missing from the criminal justice system, in which defendants are advised against making any admission of guilt.

Victims of crime usually want to be heard most of all, he said.

“Number one, they want to be heard, and number two, they want answers, and they want some sort of response, and some sort of accountability,” Kelly said. “But it’s not always, ‘We want that person hurt.’  It’s, ‘We want that person to learn.’”

That was one of the reasons some advocates for the rights of domestic violence victims supported the law, Simon said.

“A lot of the victims, they didn’t want the person to go to jail,” he said. “But they wanted him to know what he did was wrong, and to admit that he did it.”

Restorative justice structures such as peace circles also help the community support people who have done harm to help them not do it again.

Listening to offenders helps “people understand better why someone acted the way he or she did,” Simon said. “The person on the receiving end explains what the impact of that action was. The person who took that action may not have realized what the impact would be.”

Getting the law passed took time because supporters had to build their own network and educate lawmakers.

“People didn’t know about restorative justice and were very skeptical of the idea,” Simon said. “They thought it was just people sitting in a circle holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’ There was just knee-jerk resistance. There were some state’s attorneys who were not terribly supportive of the bill because they would like to use whatever information they obtain.”



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