A month after taking the California bar exam in 2010, Alana Yakovlev took the case of an indigent Jewish man facing felony charges whom she had heard of through her network of friends and family in the Los Angeles Jewish community. She believed he was not guity, but prior convictions made him a candidate for a significant sentence.
“They were saying he was going to serve four years in state prison,” she said in the conference room of her Koreatown law office. “Lo and behold, I got involved in the case and two months later, he walked — time served.”
Now, Yakovlev, 33, an Orthodox mother of three, routinely takes on as many as 10 cases at a time of fellow Jews who are often mentally ill and homeless, working to wrest them from the revolving door of the criminal justice system and get them much-needed treatment. She often works with the Aleph Institute, a nonprofit that reaches out to incarcerated Jews.
Too often, she said, mentally ill individuals become trapped in legal limbo by virtue of their illness, for instance, if a court deems them incompetent to stand trial.
“By the time a court deems them incompetent, by the time a court issues an order to give them the medication to restore them to competency, by the time they get sent out to a facility with a bed available for treatment, you’re talking about five to six months,” she said.
Yakovlev, who runs a private criminal defense practice, offers her services to these individuals for free, working to ensure they have access to medication, ideally at a facility equipped to deal with mental illness. She said the penal system often overlooks or ignores mental illness, meaning lengthy jail terms and inadequate treatment for those afflicted.
Depending on the client, her job ranges from contacting social workers, family mem-
bers and jail staff to arguing cases in court.
“Some cases could be a couple phone calls, a couple jail visits, a couple court appearances; others could be very intensive writs, petitions, legal arguments. It varies,” she said.
In theory, this should be the work of public defenders, or PDs, but for mentally ill clients assigned PDs, Yakovlev said, “Good luck. They’re not equipped. They don’t have the resources, and a lot of the time, even when I’ve co-counseled with a PD, I had to do the brunt of the work.”
Having a private lawyer involved, she said, “makes an impact on the end result, because your opposing people, the district attorney’s office, they see it. They see you’re making a fuss not just for the sake of making a fuss, but because it actually means something to you.”
Yakovlev said she often draws on her faith as a devotee of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, sharing with her clients a word of Talmud, Torah or the great Chasidic rabbis, which she said brings them comfort.
“They might not know anything in Hebrew, but they feel that they’re a Jew, that there’s a God, that HaShem loves them even though they’re locked up right now,” she said.
Likewise, she draws on her faith to deal with disappointments.
“Everything I do, I try to do leshem shemayim [in the name of heaven],” she said. “With that in mind, nothing really scares me. Sometimes, things don’t work out. It’s life; it’s disappointing. But at the end of the day, if you go to sleep and you know you did the best you could do for that person, it’s a good day.”