My guest today is Ilana Jackson. Welcome to OpEdNews, Ilana. I recently interviewed syndicated columnist Bob Koehler on restorative justice. It's a great concept and I'd like to know more about how it actually works. I understand that a number of years ago you participated in a project. Would you care to tell our readers how you got involved?
A friend of mine approached me during our teenage years, asking me if I was interested in applying to a new program in our town, called Peer Jury. We completed a simple application and were accepted into the program and quickly became jurors, serving on a panel with other local teenagers.
You've laid the groundwork. But could you flesh it out for us? How did it work? What did you do?
Sure. Once per month, the Peer Jury would meet in the city hall building, in a room similar to a courtroom, with a police officer and an adult volunteer. A teenager who had been arrested in the town and who pled guilty to the crime and agreed to participate in this program would appear before us, rather than appearing before a judge. The police officer would read the charges aloud, provide basic information about the teen (including if this was his or her first offense) and briefly describe the incident. The peer jurors would then ask questions and the teenager would respond, similar to a typical court case. There were no lawyers involved.
After the question and answer session, the teenager would be asked to leave the room and we would deliberate a sentence, or consequence, for this individual, which almost always included some kind of volunteer work. He or she would be invited back into the room and be informed of our decision. He or she would then have, I believe, two months or so to complete the sentence and would return at a later date to demonstrate this. I believe if they completed this, the crime would be removed from their criminal record. We would have several of these cases per month.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of specific cases, can you tell us what attracted you to this in the first place?
To be honest, I don't remember exactly! But I do believe I thought at the time that it would be an interesting experience, very different than my usual routine at a private Jewish high school.
And did it prove to be? If so, in what way?
Absolutely. I was quite sheltered as a child and teenage (in particular, due to the homogeneity of the community in which I grew up and the schools I attended) and looking back, it was one of my earlier exposures to people of different races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Also, listening to teenagers speak about their thoughts and feelings in the progression of the behavior (beginning with the motivation for committing the crime, to being caught and subsequently arrested, to appearing before the Peer Jury, and finally completing the volunteer work or other assignments given) perhaps was the beginning of my interest in human behavior and psychology.
It sounds like a classic transformative experience. Did you always work with the same peers? And was everyone in agreement about how to deal with the perpetrators?
Yes, it was the same group of six or seven peers, with absences due to illness or vacations. We actually often engaged in long discussions about whether the perpetrator felt remorse, and I recall we would carefully analyze their facial expressions, body language, clothing, and the specific language they used. Often times, perpetrators would cry and discuss how badly they felt for committing the crime. Their parents also attended and they would often plead with us and talk about how their child was a kind, studious person who simply made this mistake.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were some more stoic teenagers who clearly expressed disinterest and annoyance in the whole process and simply wanted to avoid appearing before a judge. In the end, we came to a consensus, and would specify the location and number of hours where the teenager would volunteer, in the usual sentence of volunteer work.
How long did you continue on this Peer Jury, Ilana?
I don't remember exactly, but I believe I served for about two years, until I graduated from high school. During my sophomore year at University of Maryland, I joined the Student Judicial Board, which was essentially the university-level equivalent. After two years, I became a Presiding Officer, and officiated at the hearings. These cases were generally more interesting and complicated.
I recall one case of a very well known basketball player for the university (almost all students knew his name, but not me!) who refused to evacuate his campus apartment during a fire drill. He allegedly had opened his window to talk to several other students who were standing outside during this fire drill, and a staff member witnessed this, told him he must leave the building but he refused. When he came to his hearing, we found out he was on probation already and he was not remorseful. Many members of the judiciary board had difficulty with this case because of his celebrity status on the campus.