When Oak Park was struggling to regain control of one of its most troubled blocks earlier this decade, the village used every tool it had available.

To fight the battle on 400 South Taylor, the public works department trimmed trees and brightened street lights, the village’s code department cracked down on problematic houses, but most importantly, the police started writing lots of tickets.

Tickets for loitering, tickets for spitting, tickets for profanity – all things that would normally get thrown out of any judge’s court.

But Oak Park had a secret weapon then: the Cook County State’s Attorney’s dedicated community prosecution office, a satellite based out of Oak Park that dealt with local issues in the village and on Chicago’s West Side.

That office folded during budget cuts several years ago, but new State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, a River Forest resident, is making good on a campaign promise by reopening it Wednesday as the Community Justice Center. The office will be housed in a village-owned building at Austin Boulevard and Chicago Avenue.

“On a problem issue, like the neighborhood, they would come in and work with us hand in hand,” said Oak Park Deputy Police Chief Anthony Ambrose. “They would do the prosecutions for us. It became like a neighborhood problem for them as well.”

In the battle for 400 S. Taylor, the State’s Attorney’s office was an incredibly important tool in trying to prosecute those smaller quality-of-life crimes, Police Chief Rick Tanksley said.

“[Normally], if we were to write that citation and send that person to court, that case is being thrown out and the judge is then going to be calling here wanting to know ‘Why are you sending these spitting-on-the-sidewalk cases to my court, can’t you see I’m busy?’,” Tanksley said.

But with the state’s attorneys on the job, all that changed, Tanksley said. With a dedicated prosecutor in their corner, augmented by a busload of residents carted to court by the police, the cases became a slam dunk.

“Now you’ve got a judge sitting there, we’ve got our own community prosecution states’ attorney there arguing the case, and now you’ve got a room full of Oak Parkers in the back,” Tanksley said. “They’re not throwing that case out. Every single one of those kids got fined, and then I think even a couple of parents got fined as well, big time.”

The problems on 400 S. Taylor were resolved in 2005, and the State’s Attorneys’ five community prosecution offices, including Oak Park’s, were shuttered in February 2007 due to budget cuts by County Board President Todd Stroger.

However, Alvarez has made it a priority to reopen the offices, and she’s done so. Oak Park’s grand opening Wednesday will mark the third of the offices reopened under the new title of Community Justice Center.

With the two other offices, located on Chicago’s North and South sides, the office at 4 Chicago Ave. will be the first reopened in the suburbs – though with its proximity to the city, it will serve the Chicago Police’s 15thdistrict on the West Side as well.

In addition to working with police departments, the Community Justice Center will also will work closely with schools, businesses and residents on crime prevention. The office will have a prosecutor from the State’s Attorney’s mortgage fraud department in-house to answer concerns and address questions, as well.

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...