judge José Sandoval explains the rules and procedures to the participants of Teen Court. / Photo by Andrew Roman
Judge José Sandoval explains the rules and procedures to the participants of Teen Court. / Photo by Andrew Roman

Ray Santana, 59, and José Sandoval, 55, are Los Angeles Superior Court judges who went to school in Boyle Heights and who now volunteer their time at Theodore Roosevelt High School’s Teen Court. While each had a different experience growing up in East L.A., both returned to serve their community.

The streets of Boyle Heights have changed a lot in the 40 years since the two men were teens. But two constants remain: many families still struggle with making a living and with keeping teens out of trouble.

Both judges see the advantages of Teen Court, which relies upon the community to help teens learn from their mistakes.

Sandoval believes a jury of peers helps teenagers. Teens “know what their life is like”¦ know all about what’s going,” he says. “A teenager is going to be in a much better position to find out the truth.”

Santana says Teen Court can result in a more positive result than a criminal court because “the community gets involved, the parents get involved, the students get involved.”

Santana is a Roosevelt alumnus. He encountered many of the same problems students today still face: “how low your income is, how there is a lot of distrust for authority, with the police and judges.”

Cousins in Gangs
Santana’s inspiration to become a lawyer came from his own family’s troubles with the law.

Living near the intersection of Second and Soto, the studious Santana lived with his hard-working mother, his younger siblings, and grandparents. His father was rarely home. Santana’s cousins, who were gang members, would always get into trouble. But he had a very strict uncle who “was a good influence on me,” he says. “He used to have me copy the dictionary. It wasn’t a punishment; it was a thing to learn.”

Santana was well aware of the gang activity in his neighborhood. Being scholarly sometimes brought him some unwanted attention. “When I went home after school, every now and then I had to get on the other side of the street, away from some gang members,” Sandoval says. “I don’t think [they] were too happy with me because I had books.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ray Santana volunteers at Teen Court. / Photo by Andrew Roman

His family’s financial difficulties motivated Santana to focus on his studies. While some of his cousins continued to be involved in gangs, he became a pre-law student and then a lawyer.

He earned a full scholarship to Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, but transferred after one year to Stanford University, in the Bay Area, to be closer to home. He also received a full scholarship at Stanford, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and film and went on to get a master’s degree in education. He then attended the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley.

Santana worked as an attorney for 30 years before being appointed as a judge three years ago.

He first heard of Teen Court as an attorney and began to participate after he became a judge. He became involved in Teen Court about a year and a half ago because he wanted to give back. “I don’t do this out of obligation,” he says. “I do this because I really enjoy it.”

Inspired by Perry Mason
Sandoval grew up near Whittier and Lorena streets and attended Catholic schools, including Bishop Mora Salesian High School in Boyle Heights. He says that when people find out where he grew up, they don’t know what to say. He says many people “have this image of East L.A. — a bunch of gang bangers and violence, where terrible things happen.” He says he didn’t see much of this when he lived there. “We were poor, but we made the best of it.”

Growing up, Sandoval spent a lot of time assisting his father, who was a carpenter. “It irritated me because I couldn’t go play, but”¦it was what I had to do,” explains Sandoval. Sandoval says he became interested in law from watching television shows like Perry Mason.

He says he wanted to leave California and applied to schools far from home. He graduated from Harvard University in Boston and then returned to California to attend Berkeley’s School of Law, from which he graduated in 1981.

After practicing law for 21 years, he was appointed as a judge in December 2000. When Teen Court began at Roosevelt High three years ago, he began volunteering. He has received an award from the University of Southern California as recognition for his work there.

Sandoval hopes that the teens involved in Teen Court learn something about the legal process and are inspired. “I want all these kids to understand that they could have my job some day,“ he says.

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Melissa Martínez

A former reporter at Boyle Heights Beat and a 2014 graduate of Roosevelt High School, Melissa Martínez was the first in her family to attend college. She graduated in the Spring from Loyola Marymount...

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