Random Acts of Kindness

December 19, 2009

You never know what kindness can do.

One never knows when a random act of kindness can have tremendous impact on people’s lives.  I’m haunted by a story I read about the great number of suicides committed over the years by people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

A suicide note of one of those unfortunate souls was found in his room.  It read, “If anyone speaks to me today on the way to the bridge, I will not jump.”  Tragically, just a simple nod of the head, or some other form of greeting by someone that day, would have saved a human life.

I personally know of a random act of kindness that liberated an entire family from Communism.  When I was in Vietnam, I got to know a young Vietnamese girl by the name of Qui Guyen.  She worked for the military there as a civilian secretary.  Qui was pretty and petite, and had an infectious laugh and wonderful personality.  Her ambition in life was to go to college in the United States some day.  Through the years, soldiers had promised her that if she received a scholarship at some American college, they would chip in and help pay her way to the states.  Over the years, GI’s would come and go, but she never gave up hope.

When I met Qui and learned of her ambition, I decided to take a shot in the dark.  I wrote a letter to Dr. Harry Sparks who was then President of Murray State University.  I outlined Qui’s story to him, and her dream of coming to the United States some day to attend college.  I then inquired as to whether Murray State could offer her any assistance.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from President Sparks with fantastic news.  He advised that Qui would be given a full scholarship – a full ride – if she wanted to come to Kentucky and study at Murray State University.  Needless to say, this young Vietnamese girl was ecstatic.

About this time, I got shipped to other areas of Vietnam and lost regular contact with Qui.  Periodically, when communications got through, I learned that she was frantically trying to get together the airline fare to come to the United States.  Then the end of the war came, and I was sent to Korea.  However, I managed to meet up with Qui in Saigon the night before I left for Korea.  With her typical energy and diligence, she advised me that she had managed to contact enough Vietnam Veterans – some even still in country – to come up with the total cost of her transportation to the United States.  All she needed was a sponsoring family, and, of course, I willingly obliged and assured her that my family would be hers once she came to the states.

I was in Korea when Qui arrived at Barkley Field Airport in Paducah, Kentucky on a hot August day.  Members of my family later laughed and told me that Qui got off the airplane wearing an overcoat.  In Vietnam she had heard how cold the United States was.

Qui became part of my family.  She enrolled at Murray State University and immediately became a big hit.  Her freshman year she was nominated Homecoming Queen, and over the next four years she was one of the most popular students on campus.  She graduated with a degree in accounting, but not before a very traumatic event transpired in her life.

In May of 1975, Qui and I sat forlornly in front of the television set and watched North Vietnamese Communist troops invade her hometown of Saigon.  (It will never be Ho Chi Minh City to either Qui or me.)  We silently watched the tanks clamoring into the downtown area, and the Communist conquest of not only that city, but all of South Vietnam.  There was also a dreadful air of uncertainty in not knowing what would be the fate of all those people – including Qui’s family – who had been friendly to the United States’ forces there.  Concentration camps, summary executions, torture, and other possibilities all loomed in both our minds during those dark hours.

For a long time, Qui did not hear from her family.  She proceeded to get a job in Ohio, and then moved to California.  She eventually received news that her family was safe and doing as well as could be expected.  Over time she began to receive regular communications from them.  Qui had a large family – her mother and father, several brothers and sisters, and their spouses and children.

Finally, Qui learned that her father had died from natural causes.  Then Qui set out on a great plan.  She determined that she was going to work and make enough money to legally bring all of her family – every single one of them – out of Communist Vietnam to America.  Over the years, Qui worked long hours – saving every nickel and dime that she could.  Not only was she was able to purchase a large house, but she also provided the cost of rescuing every single member of her family from Vietnam and bringing them to California.

In total, there were eighteen men, women and children.  Today, these people have successful lives, businesses and careers of their own.  They have become Americanized.  Qui’s great quest has been accomplished, and all her family members are now successful and happy American citizens.

Qui deserves the lion’s share of credit for this monumental success story.  However, the late Murray State President Harry Sparks also deserves special recognition for his random act of kindness.  The day he received Qui’s letter he might have given it only a few minutes thought.  Undoubtedly, much more pressing problems associated with running a large university were raining down upon him.  Budgetary woes, a potential uprising among teachers, perhaps a difficult meeting coming up with the Board of Regents, or maybe a heating unit malfunction in Richmond Dorm, might all have been typical issues he was dealing with on that particular day.  However, whatever segment of time that it took, the minutes that he gave to the request of this young Vietnamese girl thousands of miles away changed not only her life, but the lives of her entire family.  And no one knows, but from within those lives now flourishing in southern California may come future scientists, doctors, teachers, or simply ordinary contributing citizens who will make life better for all of us.

An Imperfect System

December 19, 2009

What is your major complaint about the justice system in the community where you live?

If you have had an occasion to go to court, you may not have been happy with the decision that was made, by either the judge or the jury. That is understandable. Unfortunately, by the nature of the beast, someone loses almost every time. Strange as it may sound, hardly anyone ever wins.

Besides losing in court, if you have had the experience, what was your major complaint about the system?

Troubles and challenges of the justice system.

First is the lack of access to our courts. Bringing your complaints or grievances into the court system has become far too expensive. If you have sustained a financial loss, you may be either reluctant or even unable to pay out money for a lawyer to represent you in court. Therefore, your problem festers, worsens, and the court system becomes out of reach for you in helping you solve your problems.

Of course, you can always represent yourself in court. This can be very dangerous, however, especially if you are going up against an opposing party who is represented by an attorney. Some cases—like our Small Claims Court and District Court—can be fairly simply stated and presented. In most instances, however, the presentation of the proof not only gets complicated because of our Rules of Evidence, but also the law must be understood and the average citizen is not schooled in the law.

A second general complaint about our justice system is delay. The greatest nemesis to justice is the length of time it takes a case to be concluded. Granted our dockets are crowded and there are limited judges and trial days on the calendar. However, all too often, judges and lawyers are guilty of letting cases languish.

Unless you have had a case in court—be it civil or criminal—you will never understand the emotional drain that it has upon a person’s life. In many instances, even an adverse ruling is better than no ruling at all.

Expediting cases and moving them along should be the top priority of any court system. Justice delayed is not only justice denied, but also justice delayed gives judges, lawyers, and the court system a black eye.

Lastly, one of the major complaints about our court system is that even after one has access to the courts and finally gets their case to court, they are not granted sufficient time or opportunity to have their full say. That is why it is important that court proceedings be orderly and deliberate. In other words, while heavy dockets might put pressure on judges and lawyers to move cases rapidly, it is also important to maintain a balance of efficiently disposing of people’s problems, yet at the same time doing it in a way that gives them the feeling that they have been fully heard. This can be a delicate balance.

The Rules of Evidence, especially relevancy, will restrict somewhat people from venting in court unnecessarily. If a case is being tried about a property line dispute, juries and judges do not want to waste their time hearing about the feuds of the adjoining landowner’s grandparents. At least, not unless it is in some way tied in to the case before them.

In Kentucky, we are trying to improve access to our courts in various ways. First of all, there are legal services available through government funding offices, as well as private lawyers who participate in pro bono work, which can assist people who lack the financial means to hire their own lawyer. In some circuits, there are also forms available so that people can get certain matters back before the court without retaining a lawyer. These forms deal primarily with child support and child visitation. To learn more about all of these services, one should contact their local Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

In trying to deal with delay, the court often refers matters to mediation. A Mediator is a person, normally a lawyer, who is independent and can bring the parties together and attempt to help them resolve the matter prior to having to go to trial. In most instances, this gives the parties not only an opportunity to vent their feelings and present their side, but also brings the stabilizing force of an objective evaluator into the case. We have learned that mediation has settles most cases, sometimes months before they are scheduled for trial, with much less expense and to everyone’s satisfaction.

Mediation also gives the parties an opportunity to not only expedite their case, but also be able to state their position adequately. It is normally done in an informal setting to the sympathetic ear of the mediator.

In spite of all these efforts, there will be complaints about our court system that will be justified. That is because we live in an imperfect world, and our court system consists of imperfect human beings. We who participate in it, however, should always be striving to enhance the image of our justice system by confronting the major complaints that people have of it.

A Felony Conviction

December 19, 2009

Columnist Jim Davidson once wrote an article about the difficulty that ex-convicts have in finding employment once they leave prison.  His bottom line was this: “Many inmates go back to prison because they can’t find a job and have to revert to their old ways to survive.”

Perhaps the most lasting penalty which a criminal has to suffer is the stigma of being a “convicted felon.”  (A felony is any crime for which a person can be sent to the penitentiary.)

As a person who grew up across from the Kentucky State Penitentiary, and who has served his entire career dealing with our criminal justice system, I have a few thoughts to share.  Hopefully, these reflections will be especially helpful to employers who may be considering hiring a convicted felon.

First of all, do not blow out of proportion the fact that a person has been convicted of a felony.  I have a book entitled, “Kentucky Justice,” which lists all the crimes in Kentucky back in the year 1823.  In looking through this book, it appears that less than 25 of the crimes listed are designated as felonies.  Today, in the year 2008, we have well over a 1,000 felony crimes in the state of Kentucky.

Needless to say, it is a lot easier to get convicted of a felony today than at any other time in our past.  For instance, in Kentucky it is a felony for anyone, other than a licensed physician, to provide treatment for cancer.  Does that mean that you could be sent to the penitentiary for simply giving ginseng to a dying relative?

It may surprise many to learn that yes, even good people make serious mistakes.  Just as every veteran did not storm San Juan Hill or the beaches of Normandy, nor even participate in combat, not every convicted felon is either dangerous, untrustworthy, or a bad person.

First of all, there are felonies; and then there are felonies.  Check out the nature of the crime.  It should be a no-brainer that a person who has been convicted of a crime involving children should not be hired to a position in a school or day-care facility.  Also, it would probably not be a good idea to have a convicted ax murderer working in your clothing store.  Most importantly, an employer must look to the person’s track record.  Anyone can make a mistake, but when the mistakes begin to form a pattern of crime, such history must be given more weight.

A felony conviction, however, is a fact that an employer cannot ignore.  It should serve as a red flag, indicating that the potential employee’s background needs further investigation.  But it should not be the kiss of death.  If a person checks the box “convicted felon” on his or her application, the door to employment should not be automatically closed unless, of course, the law prohibits a convicted felon from holding that job.  The local sheriff, prosecutor, or probation officer can provide potential employers information about a person’s background and the nature of the crime.  They may even confidentially provide their own recommendation.

Another important piece of information to know about a person convicted of a felony is the disposition of his case.  If the person was not sentenced to prison, is he still on probation, or has he successfully completed probation?  If the person did serve time in prison, has he served out his sentence, or has he successfully completed his parole supervision?

And, of course, there is always the dark specter of substance abuse.  A person convicted of an alcohol or drug related felony may well be suffering from an addiction that has not been conquered.  But if that person has accepted full responsibility for his actions, or has gone to great strides to combat his addiction through treatment and counseling, and has built up a clean track record in the process, then an employer’s risk in hiring that person may be minimized.

As a judge, I learned to place a lot of emphasis upon a defendant’s own reaction to his or her conviction.  I believe a potential employer should do the same.  If the convicted felon who is being considered for employment makes excuses or blames his bad conduct upon his mother, brother, or the sugar-coated cereal he ate as a child, then that felony conviction looms larger.  Once again, if that person sincerely acknowledges that he made a serious mistake and takes full responsibility for what he did, or is extremely sorry for his misconduct, he may well deserve a second look.

Basically, we need to think in terms of personal responsibility.  For that is the type of employee for which any employer is looking – one who will be responsible and who will carry out his assigned task as best he can.  Therefore, accepting personal responsibility for one’s own misdeeds becomes a critical consideration in making an employment decision.

The key to interviewing and hiring convicted felons is the same for hiring anyone else – common sense, good judgment, and fairness.  We have all made mistakes, some more serious than others.  I do not believe it is fair to completely shackle a person to his past mistakes.  Also, as Jim Davidson pointed out in his article, obtaining and maintaining employment is critical to the efforts of ex-convicts for staying out of trouble.  In other words, persons who are gainfully employed are less likely to commit crimes.

Let’s face it.  Good workers are sometimes hard to find.  There are a lot of convicts walking the prison yard today that I had rather have working for me than some persons I know who have never been convicted of a felony.  And there are many employers out there who will tell you about convicted felons who have given them many years of outstanding employment.

In summary, I will conclude where I began.  Keep the fact that a person is a convicted felon in the proper perspective.  Do not let it serve as an automatic rejection.