OC Young Adult Court celebrates 4th graduation

From left: Chiefwinds, Judge Maria D. Hernandez, Professor Elizabeth Cauffman, Gavin and Joseph. Photo by Mimi Ko Cruz Inset photos by Karen Tapia

Grateful graduates now felony free

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Five young men recently had their felony convictions wiped from their records during an emotional graduation ceremony of the Orange County Young Adult Court (YAC).

“You are now felony free,” Judge Maria D. Hernandez told each of the young men, congratulating them for successfully completing the two-year program. In attendance at the Oct. 22 graduation were the graduates’ families, their supporters from UCI; Orangewood Foundation; and the Orange County Sheriff,  District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices, who commended them for their will and perseverance in their pursuit of a fresh start.

“This is about hope,” said Orange County Public Defender Martin Schwarz. “There are lots of things wrong with our criminal justice system but this is right. This is about dispensing hope, not punishment, when hope is what’s needed the most.”

The following are excerpts from the speeches of three of the graduates — Joseph, Chiefwinds and Gavin (last names withheld by request).

"I would like to thank Judge Hernandez, Janet, Terri, Francisco, Yehudah, Goodwill, UCI and the whole Young Adult Court program for being there for me and for helping me out through this time. 

I got into this program by hanging around the wrong people and trusting the wrong people. I ended up being in a situation where a friend brought stolen goods into my home.  Even though I didn’t steal the items, I allowed him to stay in my home when I shouldn’t have. I feel badly about this situation and I feel particularly bad that I hurt my mother throughout this process the most.   

During my time with the Young Adult Court, they helped me get my California ID. They also helped me get an apartment and Goodwill provided my first month’s rent. I now live on my own in my own apartment –  which is really good. My main goal when I first started with Young Adult Court was to get into a nursing program. I’m excited to say that I started my nursing program two weeks ago and this is a huge accomplishment for me. I plan to become a Home Healthcare Aid and should have my license by the beginning of next month.  

To all the guys still in the program, my advice to you is to listen to what your PO, case manager and everyone in Young Adult Court is trying to tell you. Also, take advantage of every opportunity that they give you. … I also want to thank everyone from Young Adult Court because they were there for me from the beginning, even when I wasn’t the best person. Words can’t describe how grateful I am for you guys. Thank you."

"I want to start by thanking Judge Hernandez for being so understanding as well as Francisco, Yehudah, Janet and my lawyer Terri for all their help. The Young Adult Court and Orangewood have been so understanding of my situation and gave me a lot of grace and support with everything like housing, food, clothes, and more. I am very thankful. The Young Adult Court is a blessing from God because it gave me a second chance when I thought I wouldn’t get one. … Without this program, I would probably still be doing drugs and still be stubborn doing drugs.  This really opened my eyes to really benefit from change.

I wish I didn’t do the things I did but I wasn’t in the right state of mind. I was high on drugs and didn’t realize what was right and what was wrong. Even though the crime of residential burglary sounds really severe, it wasn’t from ill intent. I am truly sorry for the people I may have hurt along the way.  

Since I have been in this program, I have worked on getting better and healing my heart. I have come a long way since I started the Young Adult Court. I have a job at the 99 cents store working in the deli and produce sections. And, I’m also saving up for my own place and hope to have my own apartment in the future. I am finally living a healthy lifestyle and being a responsible person in this society all because of the help of this Young Adult Court program…. I would like to thank everyone for their time and effort that they have put into me, and I hope this program never goes away so it can help as many people as possible fix their life and give them a second chance."

"Thank you to Janet, Francisco, Yehudah, Mr. Bruzzo, Judge Hernandez, and UCI for providing support and giving me help when I needed it. 

When I first got in trouble, I didn’t think I would get into a program like this. I got into a fight and let my anger get the better of me.  After that, I thought I would be stuck in jail so I am blessed to have a second chance to redeem myself and fix my mistake.

When I first started in this court, Francisco helped me get into therapy. Therapy really helped me with coping skills and learning how to be happy every day and remain positive.  Francisco also helped me look for new jobs when I was getting ready to quit my old job. Everyone always provided me with support when I needed it. For example, they helped me go back to school and supported me by getting me into a welding program.  I’m currently in a welding program now and working toward my certificates.  

I want to end by saying thank you to my mom and dad as they helped me through this time even though they didn’t have to. They were very supportive and understanding. Thank you both."

Young Adult Court is a collaborative court for first-time felony offenders between the ages of 18 and 25. Launched in Orange County as a pilot project in August 2018, it is one of few such courts in the country. It was created through the efforts of Orange County Superior Court Judge Maria D. Hernandez; Elizabeth Cauffman, UCI professor of psychological science; Cauffman’s former postdoctoral student Zachary Rowan, who is a faculty member at Simon Fraser University in Canada; the Orange County Probation Department; the Orange County Public Defender and Defense Bar; Orange County District Attorney’s Office; and the Orangewood Foundation.

One of the most consequential incentives of participating in the YAC is the reduction of a felony charge to a misdemeanor or the complete dismissal of the felony charge. The program consists of developing a “youth action plan,” which lays out all the steps participants must complete such as attending all court hearings, meeting with probation officers and case managers, getting substance and/or alcohol abuse treatment, mental health counseling and employment and education advice and following through. 

The goal is to address and prevent criminal behavior in the future Cauffman and Hernandez agree.

“This Young Adult Court is being watched very carefully because of the research that Beth Cauffman is leading,” Hernandez said. “One of the things this program does is brings science to the street. It implements the policies that make a difference.”

YAC aims to break the cycle of recidivism, she said. “We have this program. It is a big collaborative. Without all the people supporting this program, it would not be successful.”

The program is a worthy investment, added Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. 

“If you give people a chance, support them appropriately, put them back on their feet, give them opportunities and let them know that they're supported, then you create an environment for their success so that they don't come back into the system.”