Public Safety

Annual Event Offers Inspiration, Opportunities to Probation Youth

More than 800 Probation-related youth attended an event to offer them resources and inspiration to positively change their lives.

Jimmy Cha is a nationally recognized criminal defense attorney in Orange County who trains judges and law enforcement on gangs. But in 1996, he was in prison for his gang involvement and struggling with anger. He remembers getting into fights often while in custody and out.

Cha, 40, spoke at the eighth annual Passport to Life Career and Education Expo at City College on Aug. 18. He told a group of 800 Probation-involved youth and their families what finally spurred him to turn his path around.

“I told myself something had to change,” Cha said. He wasn’t happy with how his life was going, and he made the decision to do something about it while serving a prison sentence as a young adult.  He never could have guessed then how his life would change by confronting his fears and pushing himself to work harder toward his goals.

Criminal defense attorney Jimmy Cha shares his life story with probation-related youth to let them know they can get past any mistakes they’ve made in life so far and be successful.

The Expo was founded by Superior Court Judge Carolyn Caietti and is coordinated by the Juvenile Division of the San Diego Superior Court, San Diego County Probation Department, San Diego County Office of Education, Momentum Learning, San Diego City College, San Diego Workforce Partnership, San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office.

San Diego County Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzales also addressed the youth to encourage them to take full advantage of the resources being offered to them. He assured them that they could change their lives for the better, just as many successful people have done, including himself.

“Yes, maybe they did something bad, made a bad choice, but treatment, education and support go a long way towards transforming the lives of young people and that’s why this kind of event is important,” Gonzales said. “Today, they could find inspiration and motivation for their optimal future.”

San Diego County Probation Chief Adolfo Gonzales urged the Passport to Life youth to take advantage of support and resources offered at the event.

So, how can a young person headed down the wrong path get back on the right track? While it’s different for everyone, Cha said  it begins with determination to change.

“I had to stop feeling sorry for myself. That’s one of the first things I learned,” Cha said. “To be honest, when I was growing up, I used to think ‘why me, why my family?’ and I started blaming people. Once you stop feeling sorry for yourself, then you stop making excuses for yourself as well. That was very important for me because as long as I’m blaming other people then I don’t have to change.”

He also said he noticed he had a very negative outlook on life and that had to change. Now, he realizes what a blessing it is to wake up every day.

He tried to get a job when he finished his prison sentence, but employers turned him away because of his criminal record. His brother suggested he go back to school, but he didn’t want to do that because he had never done well in high school and the thought of college terrified him. Cha couldn’t admit his fear to himself or anyone though, and reacted by becoming furious and shooting a gun at his brother. Luckily, he missed and eventually was swayed.

He attended community college with financial aid, did so well that he was accepted to UCLA and then received a scholarship to attend law school with his brother’s encouragement.

While taking his bar exam, the Ethics Board interviewed him extensively about his juvenile and adult criminal record and his gang affiliation. A week later, they told him he could practice law.

He told the youth that while he was going to school, his gang friends were not supportive of him and they tried to drag him back down, but he was able to resist. He also described his experience  attending the funerals of many friends, and seeing other friends go to prison. That served as a reminder to him of the self-destructive path he was on before making positive changes.

After listening to the keynote speaker, Charles Y., a 16-year-old Probationer, said he related to Cha’s situation early in his life. He hopes to finish high school and possibly attend college himself.

“He was put in jail just like us, and he made the best of his life. He was facing serious charges and he made it out and changed his life,” said Charles.

Another 18-year-old Probation youth, also connected with Cha’s life story.

“He was very inspirational, he’s been through the same thing (as far as some life experiences) so I can kind of relate it to myself,” he said. “I know I messed upbut I just have to learn from it. Next time if I do something else, I could mess up my whole life.”

In addition to Cha’s presentation to the youth, they were offered workshops to help them on topics that included overcoming barriers, financial skills and financial aid for college, job interview preparation, being careful with their digital reputation, principles of non-violence and peace-making, and finding their passion.  More than 80 military, vocational and educational organizations also had booths and representatives in a common area to answer questions and offer information.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact