Peer Jury provides judicial alternative for first-time offenders

The implementation of Peer Jury in collaboration with the North Shore’s police departments is a popular alternative among youth in conflict.

Many believe it offers a better option for teens who have committed first-time misdemeanors or violations, though adoption of this new court system has sparked concerns regarding the bias of Peer Jury and the administration behind it.

The structure of the system allows first time offense minors to be judged by their peers and avoid their crime being put on record.

To qualify as a volunteer for the jury, students must attend New Trier, Loyola, Regina Dominican, or North Shore Country Day high schools.

There are 40 jurors volunteering this year, according to the New Trier Township website. During spring of each year, the new group of jurors is trained by last year’s.

All jurors and defendants must remain anonymous due to the confidential nature of the trial.

A student who has participated as a juror for a year, said, “after we deliberate and reach a verdict, [we conclude] how many community service hours they should receive or whether they should write a research paper about the crime they committed.”

According to the juror, a pattern of more honesty and openness is prominent after the cases.
“It can also build trust between parents and their child because after the incident, kids tend to be more open and honest,” said the juror.

However, some question whether or not a community can eliminate bias in a jury of peers.

Community Services Administrator Brian Leverenz said that the program has helped kids avoid being thrown in jail, and doesn’t understand how anyone could see Peer Jury as biased. “Anyone who recognizes the kid on trial is expected to say something and be excused. In fact, kids who face the Peer Jury are penalized a lot more than in an actual court. It holds kids just as accountable as in any other court and shows them how the legal system works,” said Leverenz.

The student juror believes the system creates an unbiased environment: “If a juror knows the offender they are asked to leave.”

According to the juror, it’s a system that challenges students for the better.

“By giving first time offenders an opportunity to think about the choices they made allows those students to spread their knowledge and encourage others to not make illegal decisions. Also, by giving the offender community service hours they are impacting and giving back to our community.”

A student who was brought before the Peer Jury argued that to them, the jury was biased.
“I knew some of the people on the board and they knew me, which I guess impacted the decision they made. None of us said anything. Still, no one double checked to make sure there wasn’t any bias during the trial, which is unfair,” they said.

Since 2017, Cook County Juvenile Detention Center has reported a 65% increase in incarcerated youth. The Peer Jury is supposed to help facilitate a restoration of self-esteem and accountability that prevents first time offenders in the North Shore from exposure to the reality of confinement.

“The Peer Jury isn’t just for the North Shore. Before starting the program, I looked into communities, like Orland or Maine Township, even Chicago schools who had the same system. Everybody gets the same chance to redeem themselves in front of the jury, it’s up to them to decide whether you’re worthy of a second chance and serve community service. It has nothing to do with having more advantages or anything like that,” said Leverenz.

Leverenz also expressed that the Peer Jury is a comfortable space for the community to come together.
“Peer Jury works for everybody. It works for the law, the community, offenders, and the police department. It’s important we have a system where the kids know they can rely on and give them their best shot at a better future without having their mistakes follow them,” said Leverenz.

According to Leverenz, the experience of Peer Jury aims to educate the defendants on making better choices, and overall strives to reduce the overall crime rate of the community.

Still, the student defendant said she believes that Peer Jury is above the law.

“A lot of kids who are undeserving of a second chance just get away with things that could put them in jail. There are kids in Chicago, kids involved with drugs and gangs that are more deserving based on their circumstances and environment,” the student defendant said.