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Two programs worth an investment

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie
Fujie

With the state budget crisis still making headlines and recovery for the legal profession seemingly months away, I want to focus on a couple of programs that either save money for the state or make up for programs already cut, and which deserve additional public and private funding. Since neither would exist if not for the generosity of lawyers and judges, I also want to extend my gratitude to those who make them work.

VIP Mentors

I first became aware of VIP (formerly Volunteers In Parole) Mentors a few years ago when I was asked to present an award at an annual dinner of its Los Angeles chapter. The dinner was unlike any other bar event I have ever attended. It was different because the attendees were an eclectic mix of lawyers and parolees — two groups that ordinarily would not meet outside the courtroom — and because of the overwhelming feeling of joy and pride in the room. I met dozens of parolees who were eager to tell their stories — stories that were overwhelmingly negative and full of hopelessness and failure until they were assigned an attorney or judge mentor who helped turn their lives around. These volunteer attorneys and judges were similarly overflowing with stories — stories of friendships, struggles, triumphs and satisfaction in their continuing relationships with people with vastly different backgrounds.

The VIP Mentor pairs spoke with pride about how the parolees had become good employees, reliable renters and responsible and caring parents through the efforts of mentors who treated them with respect and helped nual dinner of its Los Angeles chapter. The dinner was unlike any other bar event I have ever attended. It was different because the attendees were an eclectic mix of lawyers and parolees — two groups that ordinarily would not meet outside the courtroom — and because of the overwhelming feeling of joy and pride in the room. I met dozens of parolees who were eager to tell their stories — stories that were overwhelmingly negative and full of hopelessness and failure until they were assigned an attorney or judge mentor who helped turn their lives around. These volunteer attorneys and judges were similarly overflowing with stories — stories of friendships, struggles, triumphs and satisfaction in their continuing relationships with people with vastly different backgrounds.

The VIP Mentor pairs spoke with pride about how the parolees had become good employees, reliable renters and responsible and caring parents through the efforts of mentors who treated them with respect and helped them rebuild their lives. And mentors told me how the experience of working with parolees changed their own lives — made them more compassionate and more empathetic, and made them better at their profession. They told of helping their mentees make improvements on new apartments and find good jobs, and then coaching them on how to become a good employee — many for the first time in their lives. Mentees told the audience how they gained self-respect because they had been given respect — how their mentors’ faith helped them resist the temptation to return to old, bad habits that could lead them back to jail. The pride they felt knowing that successful lawyers and judges took time away from their work and family lives to help them was palpable.

Since that time, I have been lucky enough to speak at other VIP Mentors events and have always been impressed with how much the program has made a true difference. I was therefore extremely saddened to learn that an event I was scheduled tothem rebuild their lives. And mentors told me how the experience of working with parolees changed their own lives — made them more compassionate and more empathetic, and made them better at their profession. They told of helping their mentees make improvements on new apartments and find good jobs, and then coaching them on how to become a good employee — many for the first time in their lives. Mentees told the audience how they gained self-respect because they had been given respect — how their mentors’ faith helped them resist the temptation to return to old, bad habits that could lead them back to jail. The pride they felt knowing that successful lawyers and judges took time away from their work and family lives to help them was palpable.

Since that time, I have been lucky enough to speak at other VIP Mentors events and have always been impressed with how much the program has made a true difference. I was therefore extremely saddened to learn that an event I was scheduled to address in Fresno was cancelled because the program there had been shut down due to a reduction in funding from the state. Although I recognize that deep cuts have had to be made throughout the budget, this one seems extremely short-sighted. VIP Mentors has an impressive record of keeping parolees out of jail. We all have heard about the high rate of recidivism from California’s prisons — at more than 70 percent, it is the highest in the nation. Yet about 75 percent of the parolees in VIP Mentors succeed in keeping out of trouble while in the program.

The cost savings of not re-incarcerating those parolees is enormous, and the added benefit to their families, their neighbors and society in general is incalculable. Los Angeles County Undersheriff Larry L. Waldie has called VIP Mentors “a vital and irreplaceable program directly responsible for enhancing public safety and providing hope and inspiration.” It therefore makes sense from both public safety and fiscal responsibility address in Fresno was cancelled because the program there had been shut down due to a reduction in funding from the state. Although I recognize that deep cuts have had to be made throughout the budget, this one seems extremely short-sighted. VIP Mentors has an impressive record of keeping parolees out of jail. We all have heard about the high rate of recidivism from California’s prisons — at more than 70 percent, it is the highest in the nation. Yet about 75 percent of the parolees in VIP Mentors succeed in keeping out of trouble while in the program.

The cost savings of not re-incarcerating those parolees is enormous, and the added benefit to their families, their neighbors and society in general is incalculable. Los Angeles County Undersheriff Larry L. Waldie has called VIP Mentors “a vital and irreplaceable program directly responsible for enhancing public safety and providing hope and inspiration.” It therefore makes sense from both public safety and fiscal responsibility points of view for this extremely cost-effective program to have its funding restored and maintained. You can help by urging your legislators to make VIP Mentors a priority in the budget, encouraging foundations and other entities that might support them to give grants and by donating your time and/or money by contacting them at vipmentors.org.

Operation Protect and Defend

I also recently met with some of the leaders of Operation Protect and Defend (OPD) in the Sacramento Superior Court chambers of my law school classmate, Judge Emily Vasquez. OPD is another amazing effort by lawyers and judges to address the immense cost to the justice system of cutbacks in civics and government education in public school. OPD was founded by federal Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who was concerned about the lack of public knowledge about democratic principles he saw in his courtroom, particularly as it was reflected in jury pools. As he states in an open letter to all California judges and la points of view for this extremely cost-effective program to have its funding restored and maintained. You can help by urging your legislators to make VIP Mentors a priority in the budget, encouraging foundations and other entities that might support them to give grants and by donating your time and/or money by contacting them at vipmentors.org.

Operation Protect and Defend

I also recently met with some of the leaders of Operation Protect and Defend (OPD) in the Sacramento Superior Court chambers of my law school classmate, Judge Emily Vasquez. OPD is another amazing effort by lawyers and judges to address the immense cost to the justice system of cutbacks in civics and government education in public school. OPD was founded by federal Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr., who was concerned about the lack of public knowledge about democratic principles he saw in his courtroom, particularly as it was reflected in jury pools. As he states in an open letter to all California judges and lawyers: “I believe that the privilege of admission to the bar and bench carries with it responsibilities that go beyond representing clients, adhering to the Code of Ethics or ensuring equal access to justice in the courtroom. I believe lawyers and judicial officers have a duty to serve the nation through fostering democratic principles.”

Judge Damrell sought to address this problem by spearheading a program that seeks to connect high school students to the U.S. Constitution and American history, to educate future voters and jurors, to explore issues of U.S. citizenship and its rights and responsibilities, and to encourage students to become active citizens. OPD’s team includes teachers, school administrators, judges, lawyers, court personnel and law students.

The program has grown since its establishment in 2001 to include seven Sacramento area high schools and has reached thousands of students. Hundreds of judges and lawyers have given their time in this three-phase program. In the first phase, students are taught topics that include “Racism and Lawlessness in the South,” “World War II Japanese American Internment,” and “From Tinker to Morse: Student Speech — How Free?” about the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. In the second phase, students can enter an essay contest based on the curriculum, with prizes ranging from $250 to $1,000. The third phase, Dialogue on America, involves teams of judges, lawyers and law students who visit the participating classrooms, 58 last year, to discuss the issues raised in the materials. Essay contest winners are recognized at the Law Day Awards Dinner.

The program is easily replicable in other areas, and Sacramento OPD organizers are eager to see it spread throughout the state and beyond. The materials are available from Teri Block, Director of OPD’s “Dialogue on America” at teri@vanblocklaw.com, and can be adapted, updated or expanded to fit the needs of any organization or school. I applaud these efforts and hope Judge Damrell’s dream of a population well educated in the principles of democracy will come true.

wyers: “I believe that the privilege of admission to the bar and bench carries with it responsibilities that go beyond representing clients, adhering to the Code of Ethics or ensuring equal access to justice in the courtroom. I believe lawyers and judicial officers have a duty to serve the nation through fostering democratic principles.”

Judge Damrell sought to address this problem by spearheading a program that seeks to connect high school students to the U.S. Constitution and American history, to educate future voters and jurors, to explore issues of U.S. citizenship and its rights and responsibilities, and to encourage students to become active citizens. OPD’s team includes teachers, school administrators, judges, lawyers, court personnel and law students.

The program has grown since its establishment in 2001 to include seven Sacramento area high schools and has reached thousands of students. Hundreds of judges and lawyers have given their time in this three-phase program. In the first phase, students are taught topics that include “Racism and Lawlessness in the South,” “World War II Japanese American Internment,” and “From Tinker to Morse: Student Speech — How Free?” about the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. In the second phase, students can enter an essay contest based on the curriculum, with prizes ranging from $250 to $1,000. The third phase, Dialogue on America, involves teams of judges, lawyers and law students who visit the participating classrooms, 58 last year, to discuss the issues raised in the materials. Essay contest winners are recognized at the Law Day Awards Dinner.

The program is easily replicable in other areas, and Sacramento OPD organizers are eager to see it spread throughout the state and beyond. The materials are available from Teri Block, Director of OPD’s “Dialogue on America” at teri@vanblocklaw.com, and can be adapted, updated or expanded to fit the needs of any organization or school. I applaud these efforts and hope Judge Damrell’s dream of a population well educated in the principles of democracy will come true.

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