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Challenges remain in effort to restore Downers Grove Township peer jury program

DOWNERS GROVE – Efforts to start a privately run peer jury program in Downers Grove Township are ongoing, but several hurdles must be cleared before the idea becomes a reality.

The township in April suspended the peer jury program after failing to receive a $130,000 state grant to help fund youth services programming. The grant helped pay for personnel in the township's youth services department.

Soon after the decision, a group of residents organized to explore ways to run the program privately.

That initiative led to discussions between police chiefs from the communities that participated in the program and Lori Wrzesinski, who formerly ran peer jury. The police chiefs agree the program has value, she said.

“The crux of this remains structure, liability and then funding,” Wrzesinski said. “The structure and liability issues must be addressed before anything can move forward.”

Concerns about structure might be resolved through an intergovernmental agreement, which also would address funding and liability issues, she said.

Wrzesinski's tentative budget for the program is $36,000. The budget would be funded in part by fees collected from offenders, she said.

However, several of the participating police departments have finalized 2018 budgets and cannot dedicate funds to a peer jury program that is not yet organized. As a result, the program might not begin until late 2018.

“Some departments expressed a question about the amount they would put in based on how many kids they referred to the program in the past,” Wrzesinski said.

Program organizers plan to attend the Oct. 5 township board meeting to ask if the township would consider temporarily overseeing the program until an intergovernmental agreement is finalized. The township would be involved in funding the program.

Organizers also plan to seek funds from local school districts, Wrzesinski said.

"The community could begin to talk about coming up with initial funding to get the program up and running in 2018 under the intergovernmental agreement," Wrzesinski said. "This would allow time for the departments to discuss what they would be willing to put in for 2019."

Burr Ridge, Clarendon Hills, Darien, Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Oak Brook, Westmont and Willowbrook participated in the peer jury program.

Since 2000, the program has been an alternative for teens who’ve made bad decisions by helping them face responsibility and giving them a chance to avoid having a crime appear on their record.

Jurors don't judge the guilt or innocence of their peers. Instead, the program served as a sentencing tool to help offenders learn from their mistakes.

The program was available to first-time offenders in lieu of going through juvenile court. Offenders stood before a jury of seven juveniles and an adult moderator if they admitted to committing the offense or if police determined a peer jury would be appropriate.

Teens were typically required to complete service hours in the community.

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