L.A. County Reconsiders its Reliance on Flat-Fee Juvenile Defenders

In the wake of a new report, Los Angeles County juvenile justice advocates and policymakers are calling for oversight of juvenile defense attorneys to address disparities in legal counsel provided to youth in the juvenile-justice system.

Earlier this month, the county received a long-awaited report from the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at University of California, Berkeley School of Law that analyzed representation for juvenile defendants in the county’s Superior Courts whose families are not able to afford private attorneys.

The “Los Angeles County Juvenile Indigent Defense System” report highlighted several areas of concern about the use of county-contracted panel attorneys, who are paid a flat fee to represent youth.

The private attorneys are paid flat rate of $340 to $360 per case, no matter if the case is a petty theft charge or a more serious matter that could involve the juvenile being tried in the adult system.

Indigent youth are most often represented by the county’s Public Defender’s Office, but when there is a conflict of interest, the county must use an alternative option. However, Los Angeles County is the only county in the state to use a flat-fee system, a process that many believe discourages panel attorneys from spending suitable time and effort on a youth’s case.

“Los Angeles is the only county with no centralized mechanism for quality control and oversight over those panel attorneys, and the results [of the Warren report] show disparate treatment and outcomes,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at the Board of Supervisors meeting last week.

According to the Warren report, the total number of juvenile delinquency petitions filed in Los Angeles County has declined significantly from 2010 to 2014, but the proportion handled by panel attorneys has held steady at about 28 percent during that time.

The report highlighted several areas of concern about the use of panel attorneys:

  • The Public Defender’s Office spent an average of $2,912 per case compared with $751 for panel counsel.
  • Cases were resolved in an average of 9.4 months when overseen by public defenders but only 4.9 months when panel attorneys were used.
  • Social workers were used in 32 percent of cases handled by the Public Defender’s Office; they were utilized only 1 percent of the time by panel counsel.
  • Investigators were used by public defenders in 26 percent of cases and only 9 percent by panel attorneys.
  • 71 percent of motions to transfer juveniles to adult court were handled by panel attorneys compared with 29 percent assigned to public defenders.

Carol Chodroff, a Los Angeles attorney and juvenile-justice advocate, calls the disparate use of social workers “absolutely horrifying.”

Social workers can play a variety of roles for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, according to Chodroff. While many might actually participate in court through testimony or by acting as expert witnesses, social workers are already involved in the lives of many systems-involved youth as case managers, counselors, intake officers, therapists and providers of court-ordered evaluations for juveniles.

Like other advocates, she said that the county must adopt a holistic approach to juvenile representation that is better aligned with current understandings of adolescent development. Not involving a social worker in the court process could risk not addressing the factors that may have led to a youth’s involvement in the juvenile justice system.

“Attorneys need to understand not just juvenile clients’ legal situation but also what’s going in a child’s social and emotional life, their family situation and about mental health issues,” Chodroff said. “Using a social worker is essential to case outcomes to help a juvenile defendant succeed after a case disposition.”

Cyn Yamashiro, a one-time public defender and the former director of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School, was a co-author of a 2013 study of indigent juvenile representation that helped draw attention to the use of panel attorneys in Los Angeles County.

Yamashiro’s report found that youth represented by panel attorneys had a 34 percent higher likelihood of being sentenced to a higher level of supervision — such as the county’s costly juvenile camps — than their peers who faced similar charges but who were represented by public defenders.

“The goal of all the policymakers should always be to prevent penetration into the juvenile system and where you can, minimize the role of the juvenile justice system has in the lives of youth,” Yamashiro said. “The more a lawyer works on a flat fee, the lower their hourly rate becomes. You want them to be incentivized to work harder and put more time into their efforts to represent you, not less time.”

As the Board of Supervisors considers a way to change the system, many advocates point to the use of the county’s Alternate Public Defender’s Office as the best way to move on from panel attorneys.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Chodroff said.

Attorneys with that office currently handle legal matters for indigent adults who cannot be represented by the Public Defender’s Office because of conflict of representation.

Advocates say the Alternate Public Defender’s Office is well regarded and already staffs some lawyers with experience working with the juveniles. However, it has never been used in juvenile courts.

“No one’s really been able to explain why the adults have the benefit of an alternative public defender’s office and juveniles in Los Angeles County don’t,” Yamashiro said.

According to the Warren report, Santa Clara, San Diego, and Contra Costa Counties all use alternative public defender’s offices, with panel attorneys absorbing only a small percentage of cases that have further conflicts of interest.

On Tuesday, the board will consider a motion presented by Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl that will propose oversight of panel representation and explore the cost of alternatives, including an expansion of Alternate Public Defender’s Office.

A solution to the current state of affairs might mean more cost to the county, but Yamashiro and others say that it is a small price in the face of further involvement with the juvenile justice system or later incarceration.

“If people pause on making an investment on representing youth, they should realize that it’s the best investment you can make,” Yamashiro said. “If you don’t address the things that led you to the steps of the courthouse, all the data shows that you either pay now or you pay much more later.”

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.