A collaborative effort among Oak Park and River Forest governments, schools, police and citizen activists has spurred a new law that offers options other than criminal consequences for first-time teenage offenders who get caught smoking, drinking or doing drugs.
An ordinance recently taken up at the Oak Park Village Board allows police the choice to send a case to a civil administrative hearing instead of having the teen face a criminal conviction when it comes to misdemeanor charges. Similar ordinances have already been approved in River Forest and by other local government entities.
"It allow parents and police a tool and gives kids a chance to turn around their lives," said Christine Raino-Ogden, a River Forest mother and member of IMPACT, the grassroots anti-drug and alcohol group behind the cause.
Instead of going to court and having an official record, under the new law teens will appear with their parents in front on an administrative law judge where they would likely face fines, community service, or a youth-based intervention program.
The new law is worth commending, according to parents involved with the cause. It is the result of nearly two years of work by IMPACT. The group hopes the change trickles down into an attitude change about substance possession among teens.
The program, however, raised concerns among Oak Park board members. Some suggested the records could be too public since they would be documented as village paperwork.
Interim Village Attorney Simone Boutet said the records, much like a court document, would be public record and could be obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request. She suspected, however, that such records would seldom be sought out.
In many cases, she said, the civil administrative hearing would be less publicly visible than having teens go in front of a judge.
Also discussed but not made part of this initial push is the concept of a peer-to-peer teen court. But Boutet said that would be a future decision needing board approval.
"You can't just say you want to do it," she said. "It costs money and takes effort. It would be a formal program that needed to be set up."
Instead, this policy involves fines for possessing tobacco, opposed to just purchasing it, and it also prohibits hosting, condoning or failing to take reasonable steps to prevent parties and gatherings that involve underage drinking or illicit drug use.
David Boulanger, Oak Park Township supervisor, said the recently passed ordinance had improved since its introduction earlier this year. Through its Youth Services division, Oak Park and River Forest townships are heavily involved in youth substance abuse discussions. Boulanger said the collaboration with the village and police will help move cases quicker and more smoothly than those that have to face the court system.
"What we're very pleased about is that this moves things in the direction of education and prevention," Boulanger said. "That's what the township youth services is all about."
Trustee Colette Lueck expressed concerns for some aspects of the ordinance, saying the measure could overstep parents control over what their children can and cannot do.
Since she said the regulations in the law are "value judgments," it was important the board decide if it's the role of the local government to impose those rules. Although the board has set rules regulating children and teen behavior in the past, this ordinance, Lueck said, is one of the first instances under which parents are being regulated, too.
Lueck also suggested that she didn't think the ordinance would be as effective as hoped since police aren't able to bust all the problematic parties every week.
"We are only getting the tip of the iceberg," she said.
Regardless, it sends a message, Raino-Odgen said.
She said attitude changes can cause behavioral changes. Previously, she said teens were more focused on consequences than behavior, which didn't solve the issue.
"That reaction sends exactly the wrong message to the children," she said, and explained that parents are prone to defend their children to keep them out of legal trouble. "Children who get caught with possession or using drugs — it will catch their attention and their parents attention. It will underscore that their behavior it harmful and wrong. It can also steer them into early intervention programs that can steer them in the right direction."