VIP Mentors: a truly wonderful project

One thing I learned from my extended involvement with the criminal justice system is that each case is different, and, although it sounds silly to have to say it, each case involves an individual human. So many times with prosecutors and judges, there can be a tendency to categorize each case simply as a burglary case, a hand-to-hand drug sale case, or tax fraud case, etc. But since I had been a criminal defense attorney in the Navy JAG Corps, I had learned to understand that each case involved a real human, and that experience helped me quite a bit as a judge.

Of course, just because each case had a unique human face did not at all mean that the defendants would not be held responsible for their actions. In fact, my experiences often guided me to look directly at the defendants at time of sentencing and tell them that I understood them, and that it made me feel good to be a spokesman for society and sentence them to jail or prison.

Nevertheless, once people have served their time in custody, it is only appropriate to assist them to live productive lives if at all possible, if only to reduce future crimes, victimization and expenses to the taxpayer. And, of course, everyone must recognize that some people have a better chance to succeed in being productive members of society than others.

But all of this brings me to the topic of today’s column, which is the Volunteers in Parole Mentoring Program. This is a group of volunteer attorneys who, since 1972, have been serving as mentors and a support system for recently paroled prisoners. Think about it, lots of people who have been in prison for years want to live productive lives, but many have been virtually rendered unemployable by their felony convictions, have never had a positive support system, and actually are scared to be out on their own again.

How would you feel to be released after 10 years in prison with one set of new clothes, about $200 in cash, and a bus ticket to your former place of residence? Probably your spouse has long-since divorced you, and you wouldn’t have any positive family or social connections. And, of course, you would be told that you had lots of reporting requirements to your parole officer, and if you missed any of them you would likely be sent back to the joint. What would you think? What would you do? For most people, the situation quickly seems to be hopeless.

So now comes the VIP Mentors, whose motto is “Partners in Success.” With this program, parolees are first interviewed and screened by a parole officer, and then by VIP Mentors itself. Then if there seems to be a fit, and if there is room for them, the ex-felons will be given the name and phone number of the local director, and a date for an interview in their home town.

Once they get back to their place of residence, they will be assisted in the re-integration process into the community by being assigned an attorney-mentor with whom they are able to develop a one-on-one relationship.

What does that mean? The mentor will be available for telephone calls, hanging out, going to the mall, or going to movies or ball games. In other words, the mentor will be there — just like a family member — to offer these people in need friendship, emotional and social support, and practical problem solving. Specifically, that sometimes translates into guidance about how to interview for and keep a job, obtain a driver’s license, live on a budget, and work through the various inevitable crises that surely will come their way.

When asked about his experience with the VIP Mentors, one of the younger clients said: “I went into Youth Correctional Facility when I was 14. I came out when I was 19. I couldn’t go home, because that was where my trouble started. I really just didn’t know where to go.”

But with his mentor, this young man said he had not only received the first positive male role model of his life, he also received some essential ingredients for success that he had always been lacking, which were motivation and self-confidence. Thus almost all of the ex-felons who have been matched with mentors say that if they hadn’t been involved in this program, they probably would have been sent back to prison. And this is probably true.

But if the human side of the story does not get your attention, taxpayers should understand that a full 70% of parolees in California end up being re-arrested, and that it costs taxpayers about $35,000 per year to keep just one person in prison. So you will be pleased to hear that in fiscal year 2008, VIP matched 321 parolees with a mentor, and of those, only 57 were returned to custody. That is a return rate of 17.8%.

Using those statistics, VIP saved California taxpayers more than $3.5 million in that year alone! And the return rate for juvenile offenders is almost as good.

VIP Mentors began as a program sponsored by the State Bar of California, and, up until recently, was primarily funded by the state. But with the state’s budgetary problems, all state funding for the program has been taken away — and that was 75% of their operating budget! So, where two years ago they had 15 paid staff members, now they have three. Where the state director used to earn a modest $75,000 per year, that has been reduced by a third. Equally painful reductions have been placed upon the other two remaining on-site directors.

Just when the need for help for the parolees is greatest, when the job market is really tough, and the number of people on parole are increasing, the opportunity to help these people stay out of prison has been severely diminished.

Fortunately, all of the surviving four programs happen to be here in Southern California, but without some extra help, that may be lost as well.

The first sentence in the introduction of my recent book about judging said that the best decision I ever made in my life was choosing my parents. And, of course, I have been a life-long beneficiary of that choice. But I think that also gives me a moral obligation to help those who did not “choose quite so well.” In fact, a high percentage of people who have ended up in prison have never had any positive parental leadership or support. What better way to assist them than to support groups like the VIP Mentors.

If you agree, contact VIP Mentors at (877) 484-2139 You will receive a great deal of gratification by supporting this wonderful and successful program.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)