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Students assist others who were formerly jailed

Some interested in law school

Lisa Fitch OW Contributor | 11/1/2019, midnight

Professional Paralegal Academy evening classes began Oct. 10 at Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC). Extension students Joe Caro and Christina Nevares may be a bit more anxious than their classmates to earn certificates and begin work in a law office.  

While they were incarcerated, Caro and Nevares studied law and helped other inmates work on their cases. Now that they have re-entered society, they hope their interest in the legal system will lead to jobs in one of the country’s most secure careers. 

The extension course is part of the Los Angeles Reentry Employment Opportunities (LAREO) program, which is being funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant and coordinated by Goodwill Southern California in collaboration with the Human Works Foundation.

“Christina wants to be an advocate for individuals in need of legal assistance,” said Ruben Ledesma, Goodwill program coordinator for LAREO. “Joe wants to be able to start his own non- profit and help owners who have lost their pets through the court process. When he went to jail, the city took his cats.”

Caro’s pets were emotional support animals.

“I had two cats in my possession,” Caro said. “I had them for 14 years. There are no laws that protect responsible pet owners.”  

After his arrest, Caro’s pets were picked up from his vacant studio apartment. No one was required to notify him. One of the cats was adopted from a shelter and the other was euthanized.

Unfortunately, this happens commonly with incarcerated and hospitalized pet owners. After 30 days, they can loose their animals.  

“I’m looking to see if I can change that picture,” Caro said. “That’s why I’m excited about this course, Carol said. “It’s allowing me to network with the right people.”

The LAREO program consists of two modules. The first is a two-week leadership component at Goodwill, and the second is the LAVC paralegal training and externship.

Caro and Nevares are looking forward to their assignments. Some law offices could be biased against reentry individuals, but organizers believe placements are possible.

“It depends on the focus of practice for those offices,“ said instructor Jonathan Arnold, Esq. A practicing lawyer, Arnold is both the director of the extension and the lead instructor in the paralegal program. “I have taught convicted and formerly incarcerated students who have found employment in the legal field.”

Coordinator Peter Borenstein is also cautiously optimistic. 

“I’m responsible for connecting them to work experience and/or paid jobs,” said Borenstein, a Restorative Justice Fund (RJ Fund) lawyer. “That’s going to be tricky. It’s been my experience that lawyers aren’t particularly thrilled to have clients who are formerly incarcerated, let alone work with someone formerly incarcerated.”

Borenstein is searching for just the right  employers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as law firms try to increase efficiency and reduce costs, there will be a strong demand to hire many more paralegals and legal assistants. The bureau projected that employment in these professions would grow 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all other occupations.

“I’m beginning to cast my net wide to see if there are solo attorneys or small firms willing to take my paralegals on,” Borenstein said. 

The RJ Fund, a nonprofit law office which bills itself as a “justice reform incubator,” primarily works with formerly and currently incarcerated persons who are victims of theft. Lawyers help victims recover assets or an inheritance that they may have lost due to family conflicts.

“I’ve met a lot of men and women who have done some amazing things, like getting their freedom while they’re inside,” Borenstein said. “I understand it’s extremity difficult to do any legal stuff while they’re inside.”

One man helped Borenstein with a case and won a $50 thousand settlement. Another wrote his own clemency petition which got him released from prison. 

Borenstein’s idea for the program was sparked by a special acquaintance, “Bob,” who had helped one of Borenstein’s clients while incarcerated. When Bob was finally released, it was difficult for him to find his footing in the outside world, due to the stigma associated with his incarceration.

“I watched him struggle to get jobs,” Borenstein remembers. “And the whole time I asked him, ‘you’ve been practicing law for over 20 years, why can’t you use those skills?’

“It just seems like a no-brainer to connect those who have these legal skills to well-paying jobs in the legal industry,” he said. “Basically these guys really know what they’re doing and just need a chance.” 

Where some students regularly take community college paralegal courses in concert with gaining a two-year Associates degree, the LAVC extension program is much shorter, about seven-and-a-half months.

The evening program is limited to 25 students and advertises that it will prepare its graduates to handle the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities in any type of law practice. 

The advanced-level, civil litigation training involves legal research; legal analysis; drafting pleadings; and delivering a motion for summary judgment. In order to get their certificate, students must complete and pass their core, practicum and externship components with a 2.0 grade point average or higher.

A  confirmation of completion from the academy will enable Caro and Nevares To work as paralegals under a licensed attorney in California.

The LAREO program wants to teach 10 more students in the next cohort, which starts in late November.

Students must be 25 or older and must reside in specific zip code locations to qualify. They also must have been released from custody fewer than 180 days prior to enrollment. 

“The goal of the program is to decrease the recidivism levels in our community,” Ledesma said. “We’re trying to do our best to get people to stay out of the prison system.”

For additional information, or to be guided through the application process, call Amanda Davis at Goodwill: 323.223.1211 ext. 2536