I found an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune by Barbara Brotman about Victim Impact Panels aimed at young people:

Victim Impact Panel Atlanta

The young people waited in the front rows of the classroom, an earring flashing from one guy’s ear, a woman clutching a can of Red Bull..

It could have been a college class waiting for the professor. But this was a college classroom, on the campus of Benedictine University in Lisle.

There was no friendly joking or chatter, however, as the group remained silent under the watchful eye of a campus police officer.

They were attending a victim impact panel organized by the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, during which they would hear first-person accounts of how drunken driving has unraveled lives. The people in the classroom had been charged with DUI or underage drinking and were under court order to attend.

This was new kind of victim impact panel for the Chicago area, specifically for offenders 17 to 24 years old.

Other panels offered by AAIM, which holds 140 of them a year in the Chicago area and collar counties, address offenders of all ages. But Rita Kreslin, executive director of the alliance, worried that they were missing their mark with the younger crowd.

Kreslin, whose son John was killed in a crash at age 19, took note of young people she saw when she spoke at victim impact panels.

“I’d see those kids file out that didn’t look old enough to have a driver’s license (and) they’re thinking, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to me; the guy next to me was an old man,'” she said.

She wanted to create panels that would clearly apply to young people, some of whom also face charges of underage drinking or reckless conduct, at a pivotal point in their lives.

“I’m not going to teach some 40-year-old how to make better choices,” Kreslin said. “But the kids, it’s more of a restorative program.”

She proposed having panels specifically for young people to officials of the DuPage County court system over the summer, and the chief judge approved her plan.

DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin is a supporter.

“I think someone who is under the age of 24 looks at life a lot differently than someone who is in their 40s or 50s,” he said.

A number of chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving across the nation already hold victim impact panels for young people.

And the national organization last January rolled out a program for teenage offenders called Start Making a Right Turn, or SMART, that incorporates a victim impact panel, information on the developing teenage brain and strategies for not drinking until the legal age of 21.

MADD Illinois hopes to start offering the SMART program in Berwyn after Jan. 1, said state Executive Director Sam Canzoneri.

The Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists victim impact panels for youths currently are offered only in DuPage County, though Kreslin is working to expand it and said officials in other counties have expressed interest. Last month’s panel at Benedictine University was only AAIM’s second geared for young people.

Kreslin told them of the unrelenting pain parents suffer after the death of a child. After her son was killed in a crash, she said, she heard from the father of the driver.

“He called to say how sorry he was and how he wished it was himself that died. I said so did I,” she said.

A young man sat with his mouth open as Doug Petit, of Carol Stream, described his sleepless four-day wait as divers searched for his 16-year-old son Jonathan, who wandered into a retention pond after getting drunk at an underage drinking party.

When his son’s body floated to the surface, Petit said, it was so decomposed that police kept his face covered to spare Petit and his wife further agony.

“I sit on the edge of the bed and think about him and what kind of guy he would have been,” Petit said. “I get up and say, ‘OK, I’ve got to do another day.'”

The last speaker, by video, was closer to the age of the attendees. He was not a victim but a convicted drunken driver. A 21-year-old named Nick, looking collegiate in a short beard and wire-rimmed glasses, he is awaiting sentencing for a crash in which he killed a man.

“He was a father, a husband, a brother and a grandfather, and I took him from his family,” Nick said in the video. “The idea that I could have been capable of killing someone the way I did mortifies me. I am ashamed.

“I feel like a monster.”

He expects to be sentenced to three to seven years in prison, he said, and he urged listeners to learn from his mistake.

“We know that drinking and driving isn’t smart, but we do it anyway,” he said. “And here I am.”

The effectiveness of victim impact panels is uncertain. A 1995 study of Oregon drivers who attended them found that they had no long-lasting effects on the drivers’ likelihood of committing another offense — with the possible exception of drivers over 35 years old.

MADD, which hosted more than 3,000 panels nationwide last year, sees them largely as a healing opportunity for the victims who speak at them.

Still, offenders do sometimes report that they have been affected by what they hear, said Amy George, senior vice president of marketing and communications for MADD.

“You just never know when that conversation changes one life,” she said. “And for one person, it’s worth it.”

There apparently was at least one such person in the audience at Benedictine University.

“I felt like I was about to cry the entire time,” said Dan, a 21-year-old with a DUI.

He was horror-struck at the pain Kreslin and Petit had described, and terrified at the parallels between Kreslin’s son’s crash and his own.

“I could have lost my life. I could have taken someone else’s,” he said. “I could have put my parents through this.”

He had already resolved to live differently, he said, but after this devastating description of possible consequences, he was certain he would.

That is Kreslin’s dearest hope for the new panels.

“Our goal is to make a difference in your life,” she told the silent young people in their seats. “There is no other reason we’re here tonight.”

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