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ROBIN ABCARIAN

He Has the Lifeline, but Will He Grasp It?

November 29, 1995|Robin Abcarian

It's your basic courtroom disconnect:

To the prosecutor, the prisoner is a dangerous young man, not just to a community that would be well served by his incarceration, but to himself.

To the defense attorney, he is a good kid with a lousy past, a victim of circumstance, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But there is something that makes this case different from the usual small-crimes battle between the advocates. What is different here is the presence of the concerned spectators--more than a dozen of them--teachers, a high school administrator, community activists. They see a kid who has turned himself around, a kid with a good heart, a kid who has nearly risen above circumstances that would keep almost anyone else mired: brushes with the law, homelessness, absent parents, a neighborhood ruled by gangs.

The concerned spectators see a success story in 19-year-old Benjamin Ramirez, a legal immigrant from El Salvador who faces a term in state prison, and possibly deportation, for an alleged probation violation. They have been in court nearly two hours for a minor procedure--the setting of a formal hearing date--because they believe in a kid to whom no one else has ever hitched much hope.

Ramirez, in jail six weeks now, is unable to hide his pleasure that these folks have come just for him. They have stuffed his court file with glowing letters of praise and promises of lodging and work.

How strange it must feel to a kid such as this to be cared for by people such as these.

*

The spectators call themselves the Silver Lake/Los Feliz Youth Employment Project. They coalesced early this year in response to a couple of drive-by shootings at their local park.

The idea, said Maryanne Levine, an interior designer, is to find jobs for the bright but undirected kids who need a push down the right path.

"We had envisioned many kids," Levine said, "but we found we were doing intensive work with just a few. They had small issues, like how to get to the dentist, how to get bus passes. A lot didn't know how to get a driver's license, or how to get their last couple of units in school. It was about finding adults who could translate society's red tape for them."

Ramirez was recommended by Doug Waybright, then a vice principal at Marshall High School.

"He has all the right virtues and values," Waybright said, "but he needs more guidance, more help, more parenting."

You wonder how many fewer young prisoners the jails and juvenile camps would hold if there were more people like the concerned spectators, people willing to provide-- just because they can --what some parents have proved incapable of giving.

*

The concerned spectators will tell you that this should not be a story about "nice people trying to help a deserving boy in need," as one put it.

They will tell that you this is the story of a legal system indifferent to the peculiar fears of a well-meaning young man in a dangerous neighborhood.

Yes, they will admit, he was found in the back seat of a car with two gang members (one of whom was his brother) and a gun.

And yes, this may be a technical violation of the terms of probation he received for two felony crimes--receiving stolen property and possession of cocaine.

They will ask you to believe that Ramirez did not know there was a gun in the car when he entered it, and that he accepted a ride because walking in his neighborhood is unsafe. Ride the bus, you say? They'll tell you that teen-aged boys at bus stops make good targets.

They will ask you to consider that this young man graduated from high school this month with a report card full of A's and Bs, that he has enrolled in a technical school, and to understand that they have virtually adopted him because they see in him a glimmer of their own children, who always had parents and guidance and love.

"If Ben had been in an upper-middle-class family," said Jill Diamond, his drama teacher, "he would already be an incredible success."

Prosecutor Rebecca Noblin might grant the concerned spectators all that, but still, she said, there are public safety issues to consider.

Ramirez was not just with his brother when the car was pulled over, but with another gang member. The weapon in the car, said police, was visible and was a "machine gun."

"If I thought he was telling the truth, that he was just a complete victim of circumstance, that would weigh in my evaluation in what danger he is to the community," Noblin said, "but it strains credibility in my mind that he was [unwittingly] in rival gang territory with a machine gun visible in the car."

Superior Court Judge Morris B. Jones, exercising the compassion that is his right, orders Ramirez released from jail into the embrace of the church that has offered a home and sets a hearing date for Dec 21.

The concerned spectators burst into tears.

The question of whether their faith is justified rests now on the shoulders of a young man who has every reason to prove them right.

Time, as they say, will tell.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053. Send e-mail to HBZK23A@prodigy.com.

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