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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Silver Linings

By Eric A. Carlson

"Injustice is relatively easy to bear; What stings is justice."

--H.L. Mencken

I READ SOMEWHERE that the rusty Santa Clara County Government Center building at 70 W. Hedding St. was designed to rust--a feature presumably intended for artistic effect. The burnt-orange deep shag rugs were only recently replaced.

I was hanging about the premises on a recent Sunday morning waiting for Heidi Pham, community coordinator with the Restorative Justice Program assigned to Saratoga, Cupertino and Los Gatos, when I observed a scrap of paper scuttling across the sidewalk. It was an advertisement for Bad Boys Bail Bonds that read, "Pay Later--Bail Now, Because Your Mama Wants You Home!" Such poignant needs--bail bonds--might well be cast to the winds if Heidi's organization is successful. At least in some cases.

The Restorative Justice Program falls under the aegis of the County of Santa Clara Juvenile Probation Department, and came into existence four years ago. It was initially set up in Gilroy and two San Jose ZIP Codes, and has been expanding countywide ever since. The idea is to bring youthful offenders (17 and younger) charged with minor offenses--property damage or drug and alcohol skirmishes--to an understanding of the consequences of their actions, especially as they affect the victim and the neighborhood. In lieu of cycling the miscreants into the black-robed court system, a juvenile probation officer schedules a meeting between the youth, victim and members of the community--the Neighborhood Accountability Board. A contract is negotiated detailing community service, letters of apology or other restitution the offender agrees to abide by. If offenders remain on the straight and narrow for two years, their record of evildoing is sealed. The goal is to restore the victim, the youthful offender, and the neighborhood. Heidi says that to date, 80 percent of the participants have not returned to the dark side.

From the hulking Rust Bucket, Heidi and I drove to the exquisitely maintained bamboo pathways at Hakone Gardens in exquisitely maintained Saratoga. On the way, Heidi shared with me some of her life experiences--one of which had her literally running for her life during the bombing of Saigon by the communists on April 27, 1975. She recalls huddling in a sand bunker with her family and being joined by a dog that huddled with them. During a pause in the bombing, she and her family made a dash to the airport and boarded a plane. The bombing started up again before the plane could take off, and Heidi noted that her plane was the only one not on fire. When the family returned home, they found their sand bunker destroyed, and the shelter-seeking dog killed.

Heidi and her family finally did maneuver an escape by plane. In a school paper she wrote years later, Heidi described the last legs of her journey: "That machine must have been blessed because we arrived safely on Phu-Quoc Island. We spent a fearful night there because this island contained Vietnam's worst criminals ..." A Philippine ship took the family out to sea--to an American ship--and safety at last. The 17-year-old Heidi Pham made a vow at that time that she would join the U.S. Navy when she could, as payback and acknowledgment for her family being saved. I know she followed up on this because she showed me her U.S. Naval Reserve card.

The Restorative Justice Program in Saratoga, Cupertino and Los Gatos is a work in progress. Heidi is looking for volunteers to serve on the Neighborhood Accountability Board, and I believe she still needs to secure a meeting place--church or community center--in Saratoga. Jamie Martinez is the probation officer in this parcel. Call Heidi at 408.529.4253.

Hakone Gardens is a quiet treasure consisting of four gardens--the Hill and Pond Garden, the Tea Garden, the Zen Garden, and the Kizuna-En (bamboo garden). Docents Denise and Dodie gave us the scoop on the history as a tai chi class practiced their slow-motion chops in front of one of the buildings. In fact, Dodie was a bit miffed with the tai chi hooligans, "They were supposed to do that on the deck behind the building," she grumped.

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From the January 31-February 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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