LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors has voted to consider an overhaul of the public defender system that serves indigent criminal defendants, with a focus on making sure juveniles accused of crimes get justice.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county’s juvenile justice system has not changed in 20 years and is “inadequate, unacceptable, some would even argue unconstitutional.”
Ridley-Thomas cited a recently released report by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley School of Law as evidence that the justice system for juveniles was “markedly uneven,” depending on whether the accused were assigned public defenders or “panel attorneys,” who are assigned to about one-quarter of county cases.
UC Berkeley researchers found that panel attorneys — who represent a higher proportion of juveniles who end up being tried as adults — spent, on average, about half as much time defending their clients. They filed fewer motions, consulted fewer experts and provided less documentation to support clients than public defenders.
“The quality of a defendant’s representation should not be a function of random attorney assignment,” the report stated.
Researchers also found that defense attorneys paid to represent juvenile offenders in Los Angeles County are failing to connect them to social services that could change their lives.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who co-authored Ridley-Thomas’s motion to re- evaluate the juvenile justice system, called the UC Berkeley report “scathing.”
“Under law, these young people are supposed to get access to mental health help and whatever services they need to turn their lives around,” Kuehl said.
Public defenders are better at linking youth to services than panel attorneys, though they still fall short, the researchers found.
Panel lawyers connect just one in 100 youths they represent to a social worker after their case is resolved, according to the study. Public defenders make that link for about one-third of their clients.
Several justice advocates pointed to compensation as the cause of the disparities. Panel attorneys — hired when public defenders are not available — are paid a flat fee of $340 to $360 regardless of the specifics of the case.
That compensation system has been widely criticized, including by the State Bar, which for at least a decade has said such contracts should not be used.
“We pay them inadequately,” Ridley-Thomas said, and don’t pay for investigators to support panel attorneys, effectively sending “them in to fight with one arm tied behind their back.”
Los Angeles County is the only county in the state that uses flat-fee contracts, doesn’t pay for investigators to assist panel attorneys and has no central mechanism to oversee the quality of outside representation, according to the report.
The number of juvenile cases has dropped by almost half from 2010 to 2014.
However, Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-California and a former Ridley-Thomas aide, said that for all the county’s efforts to reduce the number of children in juvenile halls, the outdated legal defense system was ensuring that more children charged with crimes would wind up there.
“It’s about structural barriers and an illogical incentive structure,” Johnson told the board.
Many panel attorneys bristled at the county’s characterization, saying the report specifically chose not to pass judgment on their ability to represent clients.
The report doesn’t “determine whether public defenders or panel counsel in Los Angeles are doing a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ job for their clients,” its authors state in the introduction.
“The flat fee structure is the culprit, not the individuals,” Ridley-Thomas said.
The board voted to hire a consultant to work with the chief executive officer and county attorneys to consider a number of options, including eliminating the flat-fee rate, having the bar association oversee panel attorneys, hiring more alternate public defenders and merging the Public Defender’s and Alternate Public Defender’s offices.
Under the current system, alternate public defenders take cases when the public defender has a conflict of interest.
At Supervisor Don Knabe’s request, the team will also look at using the Alternate Public Defender’s Office as the primary counsel for accused juveniles.
Knabe said the idea of merging the two departments “gave me a little pause,” but added that it reminded him of the board’s conversation about splitting up the probation department to better serve juvenile offenders.
A report is expected back in three months.