ORANGE — For people in trouble with the law, there is hope.
That was the message at a conference sponsored Saturday by the St. Vincent de Paul Center for Community Reconciliation.
"We need to work more with prisoners who have social problems," Judge Jorge Duarte, warden of La Meza Mexican Prison, told the gathering of 50 people at Chapman University.
Speaking in English and Spanish, he said that "in our prisons, we only have a portion of (the criminals) in our society. . . . The best way to fight crime is for the community to get involved. We have to support all these people."
Agreement came from Sister Dorie Valin, director of Campos de San Miguel, a temporary home in Tijuana where abused single mothers can learn a trade and try to turn their lives around.
"We need to give everyone hope," she said.
William B. Lawless, a former New York Supreme Court justice, stressed the need for mediators, saying that rehabilitation, counseling and reconciliation between youths who commit crimes and the people they victimize is a step toward solving some of society's problems.
For a 15-year-old burglar, St. Vincent's Victim Offender Reconciliation Program changed his life. He told the audience that when he came face to face with the woman whose home he burglarized six months ago, he decided he would never do it again.
At first, he agreed to participate in the reconciliation program to avoid going to juvenile hall. But once he met his victim, he felt sympathy for her.
The teen-ager told the conference he doesn't understand why he committed the crime. Through mediation, he and his victim agreed that he and three friends who also participated in the burglary would pay for the appliances they broke during the crime.
The program's manager, Mike Niemeyer, said hundreds of other youths with similar experiences go through the mediation program each year. It receives referrals from the juvenile courts.
"It gives the offender and the victim a sense of hope," Niemeyer said. "We all share in common the need for reconciliation. Things can be resolved. That brings hope to people."
Volunteer mediator Carolyn Mortenson of Placentia said: "We're trying to make the community better. People have to have alternatives."
Working with juvenile offenders before they get "lost in the system" can make a difference, said another volunteer, Jane Foley of Newport Beach.
"If we could do something in the beginning to keep the kids out of the system, we could change their lives," she said. "I hope all of us here can change somebody's life (and) make a positive difference."
Magdelino Rose-Avila, a director for Amnesty International, applauded the volunteers.
"I worked in the fields with Cesar Chavez for four years when I was a young violent youth," he said, adding that Chavez "turned my life around and those of you who work so hard for justice, he would want to compliment you."