How Family Letters Beat a Juvenile Hall Sentence and a Potential Deportation

A profile of an ACJP San Mateo case where letters from the family changed the outcome of a juvenile criminal case that had immigration consequences.

A San Mateo family came to ACJP about 3 months ago after their attorney had heard us present to the Juvenile Private Defenders in San Mateo County on our work on mitigation.  It was after their 17 year old son had taken a plea in Santa Clara County but then was transferred to San Mateo County to decide on his disposition. This is usually the case for juveniles who allegedly commit a crime in one county but do not live in that county.  In this case, the crime took place in Palo Alto but they live in Redwood City.

They were told at an initial meeting by a probation officer in San Mateo County that he was recommending 30 days in-custody time for the young man. Not only could this be harsh for him, but it would expose him to potentially devastating immigration consequences.  His attorney had been impressed by the number of people who showed up to his first hearing in San Mateo, and she wanted ACJP to help in capturing that community support in order to help convince the judge for a different disposition.

In a short amount of time, we gathered letters from different mentors in this young man’s life — adults who had always seen him as intelligent, gentle, and carried leadership potential.  These words describing him were in many of those letters. Many of them said they didn’t know what to say, but it turned out they just didn’t know how to begin.  So we would say, “Just write about him — write your observations, how long you’ve known him, and what kind of support you think you can give him.”  In came a flood of letters — compassionate, heartfelt.  One woman who went to church with him and the family wrote, “I would ask the court to show him mercy, not because he doesn’t need to see the consequences of his actions, but because I don’t believe he’s too far gone to be helped and supported to make better decisions. That light is still in him. When I see him now, he’s still the same kid who’ll make an extra batch of French fries when company’s over; who’ll show up early or stay late to vacuum, decorate a room or load cars after church events. I know there’s a lot of good in that mind and heart of his and a very bright future ahead, if he can be made to see that.”

When this young man’s hearing came on Friday, the attorney prepared him and his family for the worst.  To the 12 family and community members who showed up in support, she said that she would still plead for an out of custody placement, especially pointing to the large community support that was willing to step up for him.  By the time she had met with the District Attorney and Probation Officer, she was beaming with excitement.  They had agreed to offer him a program that not only would be out of custody, but would remove his felony plea as soon as he completes a year of good behavior.  It was something even the attorney didn’t anticipate.  The letters — especially the one from his parents — made the difference.

As a result, this young man is home, and he can continue on with pursuing his dreams in life — of going to culinary school, fixing his immigration matters.  Being able to harness the power of community in a “packet” helps decisionmakers see the young person in front of them as more than just their case file.  We believe the justice system is ultimately colored by our own human eyes and sentiment, and being able to show the fullness of someone’s life and community not only changes the outcome of a case, but transforms the system as a whole.

About Charisse Domingo

 

Charisse Domingo is a photo journalist with Silicon Valley De-Bug, and co-founder of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project.  Domingo is also the co-founder of the DarkroomatDebug.com, a community for film photographers.

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