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Use your bar card; save a life

James E. Herman 2002-03 President State Bar of California

President, State Bar of California

Jacob Boucon didn't think about lawyers at all, growing up on East San Diego's mean streets. In and out of juvenile court from the time he was 13, he enjoyed life as an apprentice gang banger. At 16, he became a passenger in a drive-by shooting.

Luckily, his gang couldn't shoot straight. No one was hit.

Unluckily, even though he wasn't the shooter, he still found himself sentenced as an adult to 75 years to life for aiding and abetting three counts of attempted murder.

Enter Alex Landon, an amiable, pony-tailed criminal defense lawyer with an intense personal commitment to his clients. Hearing of Boucon's fate from another inmate, Landon worked pro bono to get Boucon's case recalled for sentence review. Resentenced as a juvenile, Boucon was sent to the California Youth Authority. Under California law, he could not be held in custody past the age of 25 — a break if there ever was one.

But wait, there's more. Twenty-eight years ago, Alex Landon founded the San Diego chapter of Volunteers in Parole Inc. VIP, as it's known, is not one of those programs where a well-heeled board recruits a glib executive director to design a program to hire staff to do work to make the board feel good about raising money from wealthy friends.

Although VIP does have a capable board, executive director and staff, the heart of the program is matching volunteer lawyers as mentors with California Youth Authority pen pals and parolees. VIP and its volunteer lawyers salvage human lives one human being at a time. It is a program "where friends make a difference." With chapters throughout California, the nonprofit VIP has reversed the recidivism trends for the youthful offenders it serves: 70 percent of mainstream parolees end up back in the system but only about 30 percent in VIP re-offend. More than 400 attorneys volunteer for VIP throughout our state.

When Jacob Boucon went to CYA six years ago, he took along an attitude. The way you gain respect, he thought, was to talk big and hit hard.

Enter, again, Alex Landon. Alex wrote Jacob regularly, introducing him to the opportunities available through VIP. With the encouragement of a lawyer pen pal, Boucon turned to the library where he became a voracious reader, earning his high school equivalency and AA degree. And, with the encouragement of his VIP mentor, tax attorney Steve Rubin, he took an interest in, well, tax.

Putting his brains to work for his fellow wards, he ended up head of the inmate council. He learned from inside out the power of being a positive role model. He even managed to keep his family, his wife and young son, together through his time at CYA.

Released on parole several years ago, he is a few units short of his bachelor's degree, is employed by a national company and prepares tax returns through his own company. He will soon be buying his first home.

In accepting the VIP Outstanding Achievement Award, Boucon, to the applause of his entire extended family, credited VIP, Alex Landon and Steve Rubin with saving his life. Boucon had never met Alex in person before so this was a touching introduction made more special by the attendance of Boucon's sentencing judge, the Hon. Joan Webber, who had come to honor his success.

During all of this, Alex Landon was, well, moist around the eyes. It may have been the smog but I doubt it, down there in the World's Finest City Except for Santa Barbara, California. I think he was touched, as were we all, by the changed lives we were witnessing. And not just the lives of the parolees. Every lawyer gets back more than he or she gives. Ask Dan Cross, who was honored as Outstanding Attorney Volunteer.

Just as a naked pitch, CYA, the Department of Corrections and other funding for VIP has dried up because of state cutbacks. This is my third VIP awards event as president of the State Bar and I cannot say enough about the program. Please consider helping out financially or as a volunteer.

My platform has been pride in the profession and dedication to our mission statement: "To Preserve and Improve Our Justice System in Order to Assure a Free and Just Society Under the Law." Alex, you make me proud to be a lawyer.

For additional information about the Volunteers In Parole (VIP) program, contact Mike Zimmerman, director, at 415-538-2230 or

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