BAYONNE, NJ - Bayonne’s Municipal Court along with courts throughout Hudson County may soon get a little help in reducing their massive workload, thanks to a new volunteer program implemented by Rutgers University/Newark in 2019.

With as many as 200,000 cases being heard, using mediators to negotiate settlements in those that might otherwise clog up the courts could provide great benefits, according to Hudson County Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso. This is especially true in small claims situations.

“Having the students mediate cases is a win-win for the court and the students. The students get training and professional experience and the Court gets help in reducing the large number of cases.” Bariso said.

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In some of these cases, Bariso told TAPinto Bayonne, people are forced to act as their own attorneys because the cost of finding legal representation is higher than the settlement. In these situations, volunteers can help people come to a compromise. 

“Having trained Rutgers volunteers is one of the ways that Jersey City can continue to tackle the high volume of cases while meeting the needs of the community to have personal and efficient resolution to conflicts,” said Wendy Razzoli, Municipal Court Director.

The participating students are part of the Rutgers-Newark training program designed by Professor Karen DeSoto who, as an attorney, helped mediate several civil rights cases in Bayonne over the last decade. She previously served as co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Dispute Resolution in New Jersey City University in Jersey City. Prior to becoming a municipal judge, DeSoto was also a commentator on MSNBC.

“Rutgers-Newark School of Criminal Justice understands that student success includes internships and professional training that allows students to experience, develop, and apply meaningful career skills,” DeSoto said.

The students will be eligible to mediate cases in municipal court, special civil, and family court disputes where the student volunteer mediators will act as a neutral party to guide citizens in the process of successfully resolving their dispute. Students receive 40 hours of training, and are screened, trained, and appointed after successfully completing the requirements.

Last spring, the program brought 13 students from around Hudson County and Northern New Jersey to local courts as volunteers. On Dec. 12, Bariso swore in 21 more student volunteers.

The students, while helping reduce the volume of cases, also get the benefit of learning the legal system.

Some of the college students are undergraduates seeking to learn a skill that they might be able to apply to their careers, while others are  seeking masters or, even doctorates, and see the knowledge gained as tools they can use now.

Yasmine Quinones, a graduate of Dickinson High School in Jersey City, said that the mediator program fits in with her ambitions to become an attorney specializing in international human rights.

"But I think these skills can also be applied to any situation, even everyday situations," she said. "I think I can use them to help the community."

Volunteers may serve through a variety of programs designed to engage the public in providing critical services and making important decisions that affect juveniles, families and the community at large. 

These students may assist in reviewing cases and making recommendations for resolution, addressing Juvenile delinquency matters and perform administrative support tasks.

The Municipal Court Mediation (MCM) program provides court users in nearly all municipalities with an alternative to having certain cases heard and decided by a judge, as is the traditional route of litigation.

In swearing the students in Bariso told them that the legal system often deals with confrontations in which judges like himself have to make a decision.

"This doesn't always settle the matter,” he said. “People sometimes appeal the decision, and this prolongs the agony. Mediated settlements often provide closure to people involved, even if they aren’t always happy with the outcome. But since people are involved in the process in a different way, they sometimes feel as if justice was served. All people rich or poor deserve the same level of justice.”

Mediator volunteers help in the process by reducing the number of cases judges must deal with.

"You help free up space," Bariso told the students. "Some of these are simple traffic tickets, but they all take time.”

A number of cases are what he called "Judge Judy" cases, which are small claims too small for participants to engage lawyers

"In these cases, the cost of hiring an attorney would cost more than what the case is about," he said. 

In most of these situations individuals serve as their own legal counsel, and the court system provides instructions for them to do so. These cases are often ripe for mediation, he said.

Bonita Veysey, acting dean for Rutgers Department of Criminal Justice said that in the past education traditionally ended with graduation, but programs like this go beyond graduation to employment, giving students real life experience by performing real life job.

For Sara Thompson of Newark, some of that real world experience has come from having worked for the U.S. Justice Department as part of a peace-keeping program. Currently seeking a doctorate in Criminal Justice, Thompson aspires to help deal with crime in Africa through a United Nations initiative.

"I think there is a reward in this in knowing that you’ve helped people deal with a conflict,” she said.

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