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The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the Pacific Juvenile Defender Association staged their yearly juvenile justice roundtable on Friday, November 7. The conference was well attended by juvenile public defenders and defense counsel from around California. I was asked to speak on the topic of presenting incarceration alternatives at disposition hearings.

The importance of defense attorneys providing options to juvenile court judges at disposition hearings cannot be overstated. I referenced a report I wrote back in 1992, where I looked at the impact of defense-based alternative disposition reports in San Francisco. In the late 1970s, San Francisco committed over 110 youths a year to the California Youth Authority (CYA) — the state’s youth corrections system. When the city’s public defender’s office hired two social workers in 1978 to provide incarceration alternatives in cases where the probation department recommended CYA commitment, within five years the commitment rate fell by half. In 1985, when CJCJ began providing a similar service to court appointed defense attorneys, the rates fell by two thirds. By the 1990s San Francisco was sending fewer than 20 youth a year to the CYA — the lowest of any county in the state.

In essence the Juvenile Division of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office inaugurated a quiet revolution in juvenile justice reform by reducing commitments to state correctional institutions to unprecedented low levels. The lesson — juvenile defense services can have a dramatic impact on disposition decisions and the quality of interventions provided by the juvenile justice system, by giving judges viable options that they otherwise would not receive.