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Peer Jury helps teens avoid criminal record

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 9:55 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — A nervous teenage girl stands in the center of a room, her hands either clasped tightly behind her back or fidgeting with her pants, as she answers questions from other teens about why she broke the law.

It's uncomfortable. It's embarrassing. And some officials say it's much better than sending an offender through the juvenile court system for minor offenses.

New Trier Township started its Peer Jury program to handle juvenile offenders in 1998, in cooperation with police departments from Glencoe, Northfield, Kenilworth, Wilmette and Winnetka. Rather than going in front of a judge, which costs time and court fees, some juvenile cases are referred to a panel of local high school students, which meets monthly in Winnetka.

Maine Township also uses a Peer Jury program, and there are several teen courts in Lake County run by the Northern Illinois Council Against Substance Abuse, said Mike Nerheim, a volunteer judge in Warren Township's Teen Court and Lake County state's attorney-elect.

Not everyone supports the concept, including Nancy Bloom, executive director of the organization Youth Services of Glenview/Northbrook.

"I and police don't like it because we believe strongly in holding people accountable for their mistakes in judgment, but not in embarrassing them," Bloom said.

But such accountability means teens have a juvenile criminal record, which could impact their college admission prospects, said Brian Leverenz, community services administrator for the New Trier Township, who has run the Peer Jury program since its inception.

"The police are making a decision that most of these kids are good kids who have made a bad decision and they're giving them a break," Leverenz said.

About a third of the cases are damage to property or vandalism charges, he said. Another third involve drugs or alcohol. The rest is a "mixed bag," Leverenz said. For example, six male New Trier High School students were charged last month with distribution of harmful materials after texting and emailing inappropriate photographs. Their case was sent to Peer Jury, Winnetka police said.

If a case is sent to juvenile court, a judge, whose docket may be filled with more serious cases, might quickly deal with the case and hand out a perfunctory sentence — a fine or community service, said Northfield Police Chief Bill Lustig.

At Peer Jury, the case is given considerable time. The offender stands in front of the panel of jurors while a police officer reads the circumstances of the case. The jurors question the offender for about 15 minutes, asking why they committed the crime, if it was their idea, if they apologized to the victim or when they realized what they did was wrong.

Parents are often asked about their own reaction to the incident or what kind of punishment was leveled at home.

Then the panel deliberates privately on how many hours of community service to assign, along with any other punishments they see fit.

"They're mortified. They're embarrassed standing up there going through this. They certainly don't want to go through that process again," Lustig said.

New Trier's Peer Jury is not public. Jurors are not allowed to sit in on cases in which they know the offender, and visitors must sign a form agreeing they will not discuss the names of anyone involved or the specifics of the cases.

Derek Tam graduated from New Trier High School in 2007 and was a peer juror for three years. He called the experience one of his favorite high school memories. He said the program gives teens a second chance, and that he was aware of many who continued to volunteer with local organizations after their community service term ended.

"A lot of them took it seriously and actually did the hard work to try and reform," Tam said. "On other occasions I would see students say, 'Whatever, this is just something to get me out of trouble,' and maybe a couple months later they'd come back."

The Township reports that recidivism rates for suburban Cook County peer juries is less than 5 percent, and that New Trier offenders successfully complete their assigned sentence more than 96 percent of the time.

The Wilmette Warming House Youth Center is one of 20 programs or agencies where offenders perform community service through the New Trier Peer Jury program. Executive Director Cynthia Doucette said the organization sees about 25 sentenced teens per year.

"I think it's more meaningful" than the court system, Doucette said. "I think they can actually feel empowered through this, like they did something good and they gave something back to the community."

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