PJDC was founded in 1999 to provide training and support to California lawyers representing young people in juvenile court. Prior to the creation of PJDC, juvenile court lawyers in many counties of the state had been working in offices or situations that provided no training or specialized support for the defense of youth. Almost immediately, with a tiny amount of seed money, PJDC began to offer annual Roundtable trainings that continue to this day – providing attorneys across the state with critical updates on news laws, cases and current issues in juvenile defense.
In 2002, PJDC mobilized the public defender community to protect their clients from abusive conditions in the California Youth Authority (since then renamed the Division of Juvenile Facilities). The organization brought together juvenile defenders and advocates from all over California to discuss how to keep youth out of the state institutional system, and how to bring them home if they were already confined in it. PJDC’s inaugural meeting was a first step in creating a vibrant juvenile defense community that shares information, ideas, and work products with one another. While the primary focus of PJDC was initially on training and juvenile court practice, this mobilization of the organization also energized PJDC members to take on an active role in legislative and budget advocacy.
Over the next several years, the synergy from these efforts in advocacy and specialized training in juvenile defense issues resulted in significant reductions in the number of youth in state level facilities, better conditions of confinement for the youth who were still in them, and increased county-level control over local youth who had been committed. From this experience, PJDC realized that while providing support to front-line juvenile defenders would continue to remain a primary goal of the organization, we could also have a significant impact in broader efforts to improve the youth justice system.
In 2008, PJDC was chosen as one of four sites in the United States to be part of a multi-year MacArthur Foundation initiative focused on developing quality juvenile defense systems and enhancing the status of juvenile defense in the justice system. As part of this Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (JIDAN), PJDC received critically important resources to continue building the California juvenile defense community while also branching out further into additional areas of system improvement. As part of the initiative, PJDC created a web site and statewide listserv to ensure that practitioners in remote locations across the state have access to the expertise of the defender community.
During this period, PJDC developed an Amicus Committee that began to meet regularly to discuss cases and legislation of interest to juvenile defenders and advocates. PJDC also began to file amicus briefs in key juvenile cases and to provide litigation support to member attorneys. Over the past decade, PJDC has weighed in on almost every juvenile case heard by the California Supreme Court and our briefs have been cited in a number of the Court’s opinions.
PJDC also began to take part in discussions at the local, state and national levels regarding policy issues and legislative proposals. Over the years, organizations, legislators and staff at the California governor’s office have sought out PJDC as a partner in policy discussions and as a valuable resource in their work. In the past decade, PJDC has had a voice in every significant development in California juvenile justice reform. We are particularly proud of having been involved in a series of legislative efforts that recognize and address the distinct needs of adolescents in the court process.
Although our work has greatly expanded to include appellate and policy advocacy, PJDC has also remained committed to providing training and professional education to the defender community throughout the state. From our research, we learned that that many juvenile defenders began representing young people without juvenile-specific training and that many of these attorneys were hungry for professional guidance. To address this issue, PJDC developed and played an instrumental role in getting legislation passed in 2015 that defines the role of juvenile defense counsel in California, and requires specialized training before an attorney can be appointed to represent a young person in court. In 2016, PJDC developed and presented the first-ever statewide comprehensive training for California juvenile defenders.
While training and professional education will always be a core element in PJDC’s work, the organization also continues to be strongly committed to improving the juvenile system as a whole and to advocating for the fair treatment of all youth. PJDC’s appellate and policy work are driven by the experiences and observations of front-line defenders and their first-hand knowledge and experience greatly assists the organization in making the case for change.
PJDC is renowned within California and on a national level for its expertise in youth justice issues and for the high quality amicus curiae (friend of the court) support it provides.