10 CASA Participants Graduate from Program

Today, a graduation ceremony was held at the California Central District’s United States Courthouse in Los Angeles for 10 people who successfully completed the Conviction and Sentence Alternatives (CASA) Program. The event was held in the ceremonial courtroom and presided over by the Hon. Dolly Gee, U.S. District Court Judge, Hon. Paul Abrams, U.S. Magistrate Judge, and Hon. Virginia Phillips, Chief U.S. District Judge. Friends and family attended the graduation ceremony. Staff from the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Central District of California attended the graduation, led by Hilary Potashner, Raul Ayala, Pedro Castillo, Nadine Hettle, Raven Barrow, Joyce Delaney, and Mary Veral. CASA team members from the the U.S. Attorney’s Office and U.S. Pretrial Services Agency were also in attendance.

During the graduation ceremony, Judge Gee addressed the audience.

“The CASA graduates will tell you that the CASA program is not easy to complete. It is not a slap on the wrist. We require a lot from our participants, including at least 40 hours of productive activity every week. Whether it’s employment, community service, education, vocation, job training, or drug rehabilitation or mental health counseling or all of the above. We are often brutally honest with them when they make a mistake. And, we are their biggest cheerleaders when they succeed. We have them perform a lot of community service. Sometimes we have them do homework. We have guest speakers come to talk to them, wherever we can find someone who will come for free. The fact that these graduates are here today says much about their determination and perseverance. They have earned their freedom.”

Hon. Virginia Phillips, a former CASA judge, also spoke to the audience.

“I often say to people that people don’t come to federal court because something good has happened. They come here because something of a difficult, terrible or tragic time in their lives. They’ve been accused of committing a crime or they’re victims of a crime, or maybe they’ve come here because someone they love is being sentenced… But you all, the CASA graduates are the exception to that. You came here and found something good here. You earned it. Sometimes it feels to those of us who come here everyday that our courtrooms are nothing but a chance to watch a river of sadness. But you [CASA graduates] are the exceptions to that. It is really a great honor to be a part of this celebration of all that you’ve each accomplished, and what you will continue to accomplish.”

One of the graduating CASA participants spoke to the court.

“When I was arrested in March 2015, I thought my life was over. I thought I’d go to prison. I had just met my girlfriend, who I am madly in love with. I thought for sure that she would leave me. I felt alone, betrayed and uncertain about the future. I felt that I had thrown my life away. My girlfriend posted bail for me, and I was released on pretrial supervision. I applied and was eventually accepted into the CASA program. I can’t put into words what this program has meant to me. In short, it has given me an opportunity to take my life back — with hard work, [mental health] counseling, [NA] meetings, and with the love and support of my girlfriend, family, friends and my fellow CASA participants, and the entire CASA team. The first day I walked into the CASA meeting, the person who believed in me least, was me. Over the previous years of my addiction, before my arrest, I had lost confidence in myself and had essentially given up on myself, and made a lot of horrible decisions. But, when I came here and felt that the team believed in me — that was a start. That feeling of betrayal from when I was arrested became understanding, and that it was me who had betrayed myself and my loved ones. I came to believe and accept that people believed in me, genuinely cared about me, and wanted me to succeed. I began to take my life back. The CASA program made me ask myself a lot of hard questions. I had to be honest with myself. The CASA team demands honesty among all else. For me that was difficult. There were a lot tough questions and a lot of difficult answers. In the end, it was really truly freeing. I truly feel blessed that I’ve met such a wonderful group of people through this process. To the CASA team, thank you for all of the hard work that you put into me.”

Check out the photo gallery of the graduation ceremony.