Peer Jury gives teen offenders a way out of trouble

Good kids make bad choices. Peer Jury tries to set them on the right course.
 
Based on the principles of restorative justice, Peer Jury allows the Homewood and Flossmoor Police Departments to give teens under the age of 18 the chance to make amends for their misdemeanor crime and stay out of the court system.
 
“When a kid can tell another kid they goofed up, it seems to me it has more of an effect,” said Flossmoor Detective Dennis Karner. “That’s the impressive part about it. Our volunteers and the kids that we have on the jury all take it seriously. They take offense to some of the things these kids do.”
 
After being picked up by the police, first-time offenders and their parents are told about the program. If they agree, the case comes before the next monthly Peer Jury.  Sessions rotate between the two police departments. The teen and parents are required to attend. Sometimes the victim is also present.
 
The Peer Jury is made up of teens sixth grade through high school who have completed a special training course. A few former offenders now sit on Peer Jury. They hear what the police officer has to say about the offense, such as disorderly conduct or retail theft. They listen to the teen, the parents and the victim. Then the jurors settle on a required course of action. 
 
“We never refer to it as punishment. It’s always a consequence…we don’t want them to feel they’re criminals because really they’re not. Every teenager’s going to do something wrong,” said Homewood Police Officer Curt Wiest who has worked with the program the past nine years.
 
The teen has to agree to what the jury decides “otherwise the teen will be referred back to the (police department),” Wiest said.  
 
The teen has a month to complete the follow-up program that includes writing an apology letter, learning about restorative justice and how it differs from the court system and completing the prescribed consequence.  All parties involved sign an oath of confidentiality.
 
Nancy Frazier of Flossmoor volunteers helping teens write the letters and doing the necessary follow-through. She’s been part of Peer Jury since it was founded in 2005.
 
Frazier gives instruction on letter writing because she’s found “kids didn’t know how to write an apology letter. They were sorry, they just didn’t know how to express it.”
 
She often found that kids didn’t think about the consequences of their actions. If the teen breaks into someone’s car, that person not only loses transportation, but could be losing work time and must take on repair bills. Also, she reminds teens how their action affects their parents and siblings.  
 
“There are a bevy of people affected by the offense,” she said. Sometimes teens come in with an attitude, but once they open up about what’s going on in their lives ― the school and peer pressures or a disruptive home lives ― they really are scared of the outcome, Frazier added.
 
“I’ve had some really darn creative consequences,” Frazier said. “One kid threw a bomb into a yard, and the Peer Jury told him to talk to veterans damaged by bombs.”  Others are given reading assignments or movies to watch and report back on.
 
“The peer jurors tell the kids it’s basically a one-time thing; you’re getting a chance to redeem yourself and not obviously be in the (court) system; this does not go on their record,” Wiest explained.
 
This Peer Jury program is a reincarnation of one founded by Mary Fazzini when she worked at Bloom Township.  She and Frazier teamed up to get the program off the ground. When she left her job at Bloom Township, she brought the program to Homewood.
 
Through her efforts, the program was funded by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and expanded to include the Flossmoor Police Department. Over time it grew to include Chicago Heights, Glenwood and East Hazel Crest.
 
Fazzini and Frazier also had a mediation program at the 6th District Markham Courthouse of the Circuit Court of Cook County. That courthouse has the busiest juvenile court in the system, Wiest said.
 
But the grant they were working under wasn’t renewed, and the program Fazzini worked hard to develop was cut back. Now Peer Jury serves only Homewood and Flossmoor. Police know the program works: fewer than 2 percent of the teens become repeat offenders, Fazzini said.
 
Although she no longer lives in the area, Fazzini keeps in touch with Frazier and Kathryn Rayford, another volunteer. She hopes the program can find a part-time outreach coordinator who would have an understanding of the program so that he or she can renew contacts with agencies and community service sites to re-establish partnerships and look for funding.
 
“When we had the grant we had a vibrant program,” Fazzini said. “It’s sad to me that programs for kids aren’t funded,” so she hopes the coordinator can “find some way to make it sustainable year to year.”

Flossmoor Community Church has provided a grant to help cover the coordinator’s cost.

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