It’s good to know that others are working to change the nature of what happens to those who are incarcerated.
June 10, Chicago, Il
Long before he was assigned to the Cook County Court’s criminal division six years ago, Judge John Kirby was all too familiar with the logjam of nonviolent drug cases on the court’s docket — 14,000 annually according to a Justice Department study released last month.Yes, the number of graduates is abysmally small but you have to start somewhere.
Hundreds of defendants would come before him, plead guilty to a felony, be released for time served awaiting trial and return to their community — only to be arrested again for narcotics possession and repeat the process. Not infrequently, the offenders were in their late teens and early 20s and had not graduated from high school.
Convinced that education would help more than punishment, Judge Kirby began a one-man reform campaign. He researched the issues and used his courtroom to experiment with diverting nonviolent drug offenders out of the penal system and into drug treatment and educational programs.
His approach showed promise. A few offenders will receive high school diplomas through a Cook County Jail program this month.
“The most important issue I saw was education,” he said in a recent interview. “How do we get young men and women back into the educational process?”
He set out to answer that question personally, despite the short supply of resources and know-how within the judiciary.
“He took it on himself,” said Malcolm C. Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Chicago Council of Lawyers.
After Judge Kirby’s court work was finished for the day and others were going home, he would drive to community groups and ask for their help.
“He would meet with the superintendent of Chicago Public Schools to get an education program going for defendants in his program,” Mr. Rich said. “We consider it to be a fairly amazing effort on the part of one judge.”
In 2007, the Appleseed Fund produced a report detailing what it said were inefficiencies and injustices in the Cook County Court system. Mr. Rich and his colleague Daniel T. Coyne, a lawyer and Kent College law professor, said there was a need for diversion courts, saying, “The criminal justice system is currently the de facto drug treatment and mental health system in Cook County.”
At the end of June, seven one-time drug offenders ages 18 to 21 will receive their high school diplomas from a “virtual school” at Cook County Jail that Judge Kirby started in conjunction with the sheriff’s department. They are the program’s first graduating class.