CHICAGO (Reuters) - The judge is singing again. Now she's growling. Now she's shaking her black hair and laughing a sinister laugh. Now she encourages the public in the courtroom to chant with her: "I'm gonna lock you up, I'm gonna lock you up."
The prosecutor and the bailiff look at the floor and try not to smirk. They are used to theatrics from Judge Jackie Portman.
But for the accused people standing nervously before the bench, it is a high-stakes moment. Portman could throw them out of a program where they have a chance to get a felony arrest expunged and put their life on track.
Portman, who jokes, sermonizes and tells stories from the bench, is a central piece of Cook County's felony deferred prosecution program in the country's biggest unified court system.
The one-year program offers a path to a clean slate for people accused of a first-time, non-violent felony, and is part of a nationwide drive to try out less adversarial prosecution methods, reduce prison overcrowding and save money.
Typical candidates are charged with retail theft of expensive items, possession of a stolen vehicle or credit card fraud. They cannot have a felony conviction or a violent history.
Each participant must pay full restitution to the victim, who also has to agree to the alternative process. Participants meet once a month with a court officer to provide proof they are studying, working or doing community service.
Every three months they appear before Portman, the sole judge dedicated to the program, who might send them to jail if they have messed up.
"She's very much one of those good judges trying to help people get past a rough patch," defense attorney Matt Keenan said. "But she'll really let someone have it if they have it coming."
In a recent case, Portman, who grew up in Englewood, one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, came down hard on a woman who failed to pay restitution or do community service.
"That's crazy. You went three months with no payment? I'm not going to accept that," said Portman. "Blah, blah, blah, blah," she shouted, drowning out the woman's excuses before kicking her out of the program.
She rewards success as vehemently. When Mohammed, a 21-year-old international student, completed the program, Portman belted out the graduation march "Pomp and Circumstance" from the bench. Mohammed, who declined to give his last name, said his immigration status would have been affected if he had ended up with a felony record for falsifying his identification.
About 1,700 people have been accepted into the program since it started in 2011, and 78 percent have completed it.
That is just a drop in the bucket for the Cook County criminal courts system, which processes more than 32,000 felony cases each year.
But it is a showcase for Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's expanding efforts in alternative prosecution, which leads to thousands of dismissed cases each year, most of them misdemeanor drug cases.
Deferred prosecution differs from diversion programs, which funnel convicted offenders into treatment. In deferred prosecution, cases never go to trial and can be expunged.
"It's the right thing to do to give someone who did something really stupid a second chance and not have to be burdened with this for their whole life," said Mark Kammerer, supervisor of alternative prosecutions for Cook County.
Few U.S. jurisdictions offer this sort of a deal in felony cases, Kammerer said.
A recent Loyola University Chicago evaluation found the program does not necessarily reduce the re-arrest rate compared with people convicted of similar crimes in Cook County.
However, researchers said program graduates who complete the paperwork to get their arrests expunged benefit when looking for jobs, housing and loans.
The state also avoids expensive trials.
In court, new participants listened raptly to Portman as she threw out a direct challenge.
"I will lock you up; you saw me do it today. Didn't shed a tear," Portman told the newbies. "I'm like no judge you will probably ever meet in your life."
Mohammed, for one, is not likely to forget the judge any time soon. "She's the best," he said, "I enjoyed coming to court just to see her.
Editing by David Bailey, Paul Thomasch and Doina Chiacu