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.