Achieving Justice for Children in Courts, Schools, Prisons and after Parole: One Client, One Student, One Case at a Time.
In 2004, the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy (CJLP) was founded by Cyn Yamashiro, a public defender, in order to tackle the injustices of the Los Angeles County juvenile court system, injustices rooted in inadequate funding, racial discrimination, a failing social welfare system, and a culture of over-incarceration. With seven law students, the Center provided state-of-the-art, holistic advocacy to 24 juvenile clients in Inglewood and Compton in the first year. Since then, the Center has expanded to four clinics with three full-time clinical faculty, four staff attorneys, two social workers and a clinical fellow and about 50 students each year who have dedicated over 80,000 pro bono hours representing more than 700 children in L.A.’s neediest communities: Inglewood, Compton, and the San Gabriel Valley. Sean Kennedy now leads the CJLP as its Kaplan Feldman Executive Director, after serving for eight years as the Federal Public Defender for the Central District of California.
While providing exemplary legal advocacy to indigent children, the Center trains law students and prepares them for careers in child advocacy and the public interest. These students work with faculty, staff attorneys and a social worker in a legal advocacy team that holistically represents a child’s stated interests, thereby tackling the often treatable root causes of delinquent behavior: mental health issues, learning disabilities, homelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence, and inadequate foster-care placement.
These children are among the neediest and yet, as “delinquents,” the least likely to receive philanthropic assistance. Despite being victims of violence themselves and suffering from high levels of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, these young people are abandoned to public schools that operate like penal institutions and to a punitive justice system that shirks its moral obligation to offer meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation. Consequently, children involved with the juvenile justice system have low rates of educational attainment and high rates of learning disabilities, substance abuse, and mental health issues, which, untreated, have led to alarming recidivism rates. The disproportionate representation of minority children in the system, accompanied by abysmal recidivism rates, translates into immeasurable economic, social, and moral costs for Los Angeles communities (Newell and Leap, “Reforming the Nation’s Largest Juvenile Justice System,” UCLA, 2013).
The CJLP bases its program on the fundamental belief that all children are able to learn, change, and grow beyond their mistakes; and that, in fact, a child who breaks the law is too often a child who has been failed by a family, a school, the welfare system, or the community. The CJLP maintains that, since a child’s brain is cognitively incomplete, juvenile culpability is different from adult culpability, and likewise children, especially, are redeemable and can benefit from rehabilitation. The CJLP thus lobbies for age-appropriate treatment practices that educate and rehabilitate troubled youth into constructive members of society rather than locking historic numbers of children away for life, devastating their communities and costing taxpayers billions of dollars. From legal representation in juvenile court (JJC), due process hearings, disciplinary hearings, and IEP meetings (YJEC) through to post-conviction advocacy for youth sentenced to unjustly disproportionate adult prison sentences (JIFS Clinic and the CCCJP), and culminating in support upon re-entry (CCCJP), the CJLP intercedes on behalf of court-involved children at every stage of their legal trajectories.
At the heart of the CJLP mission are its juvenile legal clinics, where law students with faculty represent live clients. In the Juvenile Justice Clinic (JJC), students and faculty mount a zealous defense of children in delinquency court that starts with the first client meeting and lasts until the child achieves majority. Alongside their legal advocates, the Center’s social workers provide mental health assessments for all clients, craft treatment plans, design innovative disposition (sentencing) alternatives for the courts, and, with the legal team, monitor progress after dispositions. The second clinic, the Youth Justice Education Clinic (YJEC), combats the school-to-prison pipeline by advocating for the educational needs of at-risk students in school discipline and special education hearings, by securing their access to Regional Center services, and by assuring the systemic implementation of their education rights. The Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic (JIFS Clinic) represents juveniles who were wrongfully convicted or sentenced to unconscionably long prison terms, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Recently, as well, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti partnered with the CJLP to offer the Collateral Consequences of Conviction Justice Project (CCCJP). This fourth clinic provides free legal representation to individuals with past criminal justice involvement to assist them in navigating and overcoming many of the collateral consequences of conviction with the goal of facilitating successful reintegration into society.
CJLP Bolsters Fight against COVID-19
To learn more about what the CJLP is doing during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit our release here and check out our recent Legal Lunch Bites discussion here about the impact of COVID-19.