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These are accounts of ten angry young men with nothing to lose. Mayhem at home, drugs and alcohol, gang warfare, drive-by shootings, armed robbery — even murder — and always stints behind bars with a dark promise of more to come.

Then always some prudent insight hit home and suddenly there began a turnaround. One young man, serving time for second-degree murder, called his moment of insight an epiphany.

With the help of volunteer attorney-mentors acting through a statewide organization called Volunteers in Parole, each man interviewed for this story has attempted to transcend the stuff of personal tragedy. Not all of these stories have happy endings, but for all of them, these are the second acts.

The profile of a juvenile under the lock-down supervision of the California Youth Authority is a young man or woman who is failing in school, has been raised in a dysfunctional family, and is involved in substance abuse and is therefore mentally disordered. The majority (96 percent) are male. The age range is 12 to 25.

The California Youth Authority, however, may come late in the career of a delinquent. When a young person commits a crime, depending upon its severity, he may face no more than a reprimand from a police officer or find himself ordered by a judge to informal probation. The juvenile justice system prides itself on working with a young person and the structures that are already in place — the home, the school, and the larger community. But if these structures fail and the young person continues in illegal activities, he faces formal probation. There follows a variety of lockdown placements at Juvenile Hall or county camps. The facilities offer encouragement for the young person to alter his behavior. If upon release from one of these settings, however, he continues his illegal activities, he may graduate out of the county system into the state-run California Youth Authority.

The California Youth Authority was created in 1941, and in 1943 the agency began to operate the state’s “reform schools.” The largest juvenile offender agency in the nation, the Youth Authority now has 5984 young people in institutions and camps, and 4300 more on parole.

During the 1950s and 1960s, guided by the premise that youthful offenders should not be housed with hardened adult prisoners, the agency built more facilities. Today, there are 12 located throughout the state, and like other parts of the criminal justice system, they have been subject to overcrowding, staff abuses, and media criticism.

According to a December 24, 1999, article in the Los Angeles Times, 40 percent of Youth Authority wards live in “open dorms with quaint names.… But most have left petty theft far behind. Nearly two-thirds of the prisoners are committed for violent crimes such as rape, murder, and assault, compared with the 47% who were violent offenders just a decade ago. About 44% require special handling for some mental dysfunction. Gang affiliation and racial animus are rampant.”

The enactment in 1999 of legislation that required certain 16-year-old offenders to be charged as adults, and the passage in March 2000 of Proposition 21, making the prosecution of certain 14-year-olds as adults easier, the Times article continues, brought the “juvenile justice evolution full circle.”

For the past 16 years, Jim Pauley has watched this “tough on crime” mood grow. From his office on Texas Street in Mission Valley, he serves as the San Diego program director for Volunteers in Parole (VIP). His job of matching attorneys to mentees requires him to set things up and then get out of the way so the volunteer attorney and the new parolee can begin to form their relationship. This matchmaker says, “What we do may be a pretty small cog in the overall picture, but any influence on a person’s life can have a tremendous impact, and I see that happening all the time.”

Volunteers in Parole was founded in 1972 and brought to San Diego three years later. The program matches volunteer attorney-mentors one-on-one with Youth Authority parolees. Over the course of nearly 30 years, the program has helped more than 3500 troubled young adults become self-reliant, self-respecting, self-supporting, and crime-free. Research indicates that the program, with its support base of 200 mentor volunteers, has helped reduce the rate of recidivism among participants by more than 50 percent. This is no mean statistic. When weighed against the price tag recidivism means to the state, the drain it is on society, and the personal costs paid by the individual who returns to criminal behavior (as well as the cost to his/her victims and their families), the savings are inestimable.

Pauley, tall and thin, with the genial air of a Gary Cooper paired with the movie star looks of Kevin Costner, sends information about Volunteers in Parole to upcoming parolees while they are still incarcerated. Each year he interviews about 150 young men and women released on parole. Half sign up for the program, and about half of those go on to become official “matches” (when an attorney and a parolee meet face-to-face at least two times). On behalf of Volunteers in Parole, Pauley speaks before lawyer groups and civic organizations, sets up the annual awards banquet, and manages fund-raising events — all in the hope that a kid might make a turnaround.

Many of the parolees Pauley sees have grown up under horrific circumstances. Those willing to change course must often do so in the face of years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, drug and alcohol addictions, and lousy school histories. With little money and few contacts, too often new parolees return to the same environments that spawned them.

“What some of these kids have gone through is unbelievable,” says Pauley.

He reviewed one case in which a father filled his child’s bottle with LSD. In another, a father wrapped a plastic bag around his three-day-old son’s head and blew in marijuana smoke; later, the father abused the child sexually and physically. Then there was the case of the 5-year-old whose father took him along on crime sprees. The next year, the kid was hooked on marijuana, and by the age of 12, he was going without sleep for a week because of his rock cocaine habit. According to Pauley, the youngster’s need for drugs was so intense that he attempted suicide. “It was the only way he knew to free himself from the craving.”

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