NEW YORK — Jason Pedreros is considered an adult in the eyes of the law. But at 18, he is still a teenager who, as a volunteer on a judicial panel, is deciding the fate of fellow youths in the New Jersey county where he lives.
Pedreros serves on the Juvenile Conference Committees (JCC) in Hudson County that review charges against underage New Jersey residents and make punitive and rehabilitative recommendations to the court. There are six- to nine-member committees in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties. In addition, many municipalities have their own. His handles north Bergen, west New York and Jersey City.
Charges are first reviewed by a juvenile intake probation officer and a Hudson County prosecutor, who decides which cases get sent to committees. First- or second-time minor offenses are eligible.
Pedreros, like all other committee volunteers, went through a training session before he could serve. They learn what types of offenses they will review, how to read a police report, review a code of conduct and find out about services available for juvenile defendants. Volunteers also sit in on an active committee to see how they work.
Pedreros began work in October and plans to continue until he moves to Waco, Texas, to attend Baylor University in the fall. So far, he’s seen about 30 New Jersey kids, who are in front of the panel for anything from breaking a window to simple assault to shoplifting.
Pedreros and the other volunteers meet once a month and typically see three or four cases at a time. They are given the police report and any other documentation, reviewing it before calling in the defendant and parent or guardian. Pedreros said the first thing they ask is why the defendant is there. If it doesn’t match the police report, it raises a red flag, he said. It’s only happened once so far.
Mostly, he said, the panel tries to give them a second chance. Depending on the charge, the committee might recommend to the judge that the defendant should do community service, get at-home counseling or even call the defendant’s school to get them extra tutoring.
“I get to see people who don’t have as much privilege as I do and try to help them,” Pedreros said. “It makes you more reflective.”
If the defendant and parent accept the recommendation, they sign an agreement that becomes a court order. Once the order is met, the charges are dismissed. Defendants can get their records expunged with a form and fee.
The idea for Juvenile Conference Committees began in 1948; they became law in the early 1950s.
In 2011, the latest available year with data, 7,183 cases were diverted to Juvenile Conference Committees. This represents almost 17 percent of the total juvenile delinquency caseload statewide.
By the end of 2011, there were 262 Juvenile Conference Committees with 2,124 volunteers.
A few years ago, Judge Glenn A. Grant, the acting administrative director of New Jersey Courts, started an initiative to get at least one youth member on each committee.
George Podolak, the Hudson County JCC coordinator, also thinks it’s a good idea to have young people on the committees. Youth members can help the rest of the committee empathize with what the defendant is going through, he said.
“Juvenile defendants are held accountable by people in their community and get to see other juveniles on the committee," Podolak said.
Pedreros speaks four languages and has dreams of speaking 10 some day. He is involved in six clubs and studied in Germany last semester.
Fernando Pedreros, Jason’s father, said he initially was wary of this extra commitment, but it’s now clear how much his son has liked the work.
“Every day he’s talking about it,” Pedreros said. “He wants to do better for the country, better for the people."
Pedreros wants to work in public service one day, maybe as the governor of Texas. He often wears a pin emblazoned with the seal of the U.S. Senate, which he said Ted Cruz, one of his idols, gave him. His politics are conservative but, as a young man with Colombian roots, he was excited and inspired to see President Obama elected.
“It showed me America is changing,” he said. “We are bringing more people of color into politics.”