The right to competent legal counsel, regardless of ability to pay, is enshrined in our Constitution. Nevertheless, it remains elusive for many indigent youth in Los Angeles County, where the juvenile legal defense system has not seen meaningful reform in two decades.
A new study by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley raised disturbing findings about the current structure designed to provide legal representation for children and young adults who cannot afford to hire counsel. The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office typically represents those individuals; however, in situations where the Public Defender (or in certain circumstances the Alternate Public Defender) is already representing a client in the same case, a private lawyer is appointed at County expense. They are commonly referred to as panel attorneys and paid a flat fee, ranging from $340 to $360 per case — nothing more.
The amount is fixed, regardless of the seriousness and complexity of a case or the number of hours spent working on it. If these panel attorneys need to hire investigators, they must pay for them themselves, unlike counsel in the Public Defender’s Office, where the County provides funds for investigators. The same goes for training.
How can panel attorneys be expected to mount a vigorous defense with such limited resources? It is like sending them, and their young clients, into a fistfight with one arm tied behind their back.
While the amount of money or time spent on a defense doesn’t always equate to better representation, it often matters. On average, the Public Defender’s Office expends $2,912 per case, while panel counsel spend $751 per case — less than a third.
Most of these indigent youth are children of color. Inadequate juvenile indigent defense has been one more way that youth, typically youth of color, have been funneled into the justice system. For example, the Warren Institute noted that a number of panel attorney clients were more likely to end up in juvenile camps, prison or transferred to the adult court system than clients represented by the Public Defender’s Office. That impacts lifelong prospects for employment, being able to vote and gaining access to federal funds for education.
The problem with inadequate defense is more structural than personal. The Warren Institute did not attribute these outcomes to a lack of caring on the part of panel attorneys who, they noted, are “hardworking and committed professionals.” Rather, the system is set up in a way that almost guarantees disparities.
When our youth do not receive effective representation and are denied the possibility of receiving a lesser punishment because their attorney lacks certain resources, the County and society pay a hefty price in economic, social welfare and public safety costs.
Frankly, reforms should have taken place in Los Angeles County years ago, as they have in many other jurisdictions.
The Warren Institute study revealed that Los Angeles County is the only one among 10 surveyed in California that still uses the flat-fee structure for compensating panel attorneys, but does not provide panel attorneys with County-paid investigators. Further, according to the study, Los Angeles County allows panel attorneys to bear heavy caseloads, and lacks oversight and quality controls. This is unacceptable.
We must act with a sense of urgency and make sweeping changes to level the playing field for juvenile defendants, many of whom are themselves victims — of childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, struggling schools and dysfunction at home. Sadly, a significant number also suffer from mental illness.
Given the unique needs of these youth, any new system must ensure that legal counsel serves their young clients holistically. Beyond defending them from allegations, they must also act as advocates, who make sure that these youth receive services ordered by the court, such as educational support, medical and psychological treatment, assistance with sealing or expunging their records, and appealing cases. That is the new standard for high quality juvenile defense, and Los Angeles County must embrace it.
When Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system was created over a century ago, the goal was not merely to punish, but to rehabilitate. Somehow, we lost our way.
It is high time that we come to grips with the fact that the nation’s largest juvenile justice system has provided a youth legal defense that is inadequate, unacceptable and arguably unconstitutional. Members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are uniting to address this, taking steps to examine the noted disparities with an eye on producing reform that is long overdue. Our children and their families deserve nothing less.