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Peer juries seen as a safety valve
With Juvenile Courts jammed, 'restorative justice' gets a try

Friday, August 14, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Kim Janssen

Get rid of the judge and attorneys, give the victim a say and let community volunteers decide on punishment -- that's the idea behind "restorative justice," a radically different approach to tackling child crime.

Authorities hope it could be a key to reducing the massive backlog of south suburban juvenile delinquency cases.

Already widely used elsewhere, forms of restorative justice vary.

In some towns and schools, "peer juries" of children overseen by an adult hear minor cases -- such as shoplifting or petty vandalism -- that have been diverted from court. In others, a mediator sits down with the victim, the offender and their families, to try to resolve disputes.

In theory, everyone wins. The victim gets swift justice; the offender is spared court and a juvenile record; the community is involved in the punishment; and the taxpayer pays only for training and administrative costs.

In practice, the limitations are clear. At a recent peer jury hearing in Worth Township, an all-white teenage peer jury sat in judgment of mostly Hispanic defendants. Without an interpreter, many of the Hispanic and Polish parents of the defendants could not follow the proceedings. One young Polish boy who had made prank calls was told to read his mother an English apology she couldn't understand. Easily distracted, most teen jurors asked questions by rote, and then let adult administrators decide the punishments, which typically included community service, an apology and an essay.

But when it works, it's a "powerful, emotional process" that forces children to take responsibility in a way that courts can't, said Mary Fazzini, who runs a peer jury in Homewood- Flossmoor.

"There's lots of tears," she said.


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