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.
On a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the Board of Supervisors voted to look into reforming how Los Angeles County provides legal counsel to those in the juvenile justice system.
When children and teenagers cannot afford an attorney, the County provides a public defender. If there is a conflict – such as when the public defender or alternate public defender is already representing another party in the case – the County hires a private “panel attorney,” who gets paid a flat fee of $340-$360 regardless of the complexity and severity of the case, and who must use their own resources to hire investigators.
“The juvenile justice system was created to recognize the unique needs of youth and to ensure that they were provided opportunities for rehabilitation and not simply punishment,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Somehow, we have lost our way, but this motion seeks to put us back on the right track.”
He said the current flat-fee system puts panel attorneys, and the youth that they represent, at a disadvantage. “We pay them inadequately, and then we don’t afford them the resources they need to maximize the potential for justice in the case of indigent juveniles. It’s like sending them into a fight with one arm tied behind their back.”
Supervisor Kuehl said the motion is part of the Board’s continuing effort to better serve youth who are under the County’s care and custody. She expressed hope that the reforms would include advocacy and other services that would give youth a “second chance.”
Several advocates for youth and for juvenile justice system reforms testified in support of the motion, including attorney Carol Chodroff, who said it “can address disparities in the current system, save taxpayer dollars, and ensure that all juvenile defendants are afforded competent representation.”
Retired LA Superior Court Judge Jan Levine said if panel counsel “no longer labor with comparatively inferior tools, the real beneficiaries would be the youth appearing before the court.”
In response to a 2014 motion by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law conducted an unprecedented analysis of the juvenile indigent defense system and found the flat fee could be a disincentive for panel attorneys to spend additional time and effort on a case.
The analysis also noted the County has minimal to no oversight on its juvenile indigent defense system, including around panel attorneys’ caseloads and training. Nor does it monitor whether panel attorneys advocate for their young clients to receive services like housing, special education, and treatments for abuse, trauma, substance addiction and mental illness. The report showed this resulted in disparate outcomes, with youth represented by panel attorneys more likely to be sent to probation camps or transferred to the adult system.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl are looking to reform how Los Angeles County provides legal counsel to those in the juvenile delinquency system, after a recently released report raised concerns about the quality of their legal defense.
When children and teenagers cannot afford an attorney, the County provides a public defender. If there is a conflict – such as when a public defender or, in some cases, alternate public defender is already representing another party in the case – the County hires a private “panel attorney,” who gets paid a flat fee of $340-$360.
In 2014, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas urged the County to commission an unprecedented analysis of the juvenile indigent defense system to ensure at-risk youth receive fair treatment in court. The Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law conducted extensive interviews and surveys, case file reviews, and billing and payment analysis before reporting to the Board of Supervisors this month.
The analysis found the flat fee could be a disincentive for panel attorneys to spend additional time and effort on a case. It also noted the County has minimal to no oversight on its juvenile indigent defense system, including around panel attorneys’ caseloads and training. Nor does it monitor whether panel attorneys advocate for their young clients to receive services like housing, special education, and treatments for abuse, trauma, substance addiction and mental illness. The report showed this resulted in disparate outcomes, with youth represented by panel attorneys more likely to be sent to probation camps or transferred to the adult system.
Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Kuehl called for reform, saying the structure of the juvenile indigent defense system has not changed in the 20 years since contracts with panel attorneys were first developed.
“The time has come for the County to take a serious look at how youth are represented and find that reform is critically needed,” they said in a motion. “It is now clear that the quality of legal representation of children in the County’s juvenile delinquency system is markedly uneven, and that a key element of the current organizational structure involving panel attorneys is insufficient and lacks oversight.”
The Board of Supervisors will hear the full motion on April 5.
“At a time when some considered African Americans unfit even to operate heavy machinery, the Tuskegee Airmen shattered stereotypes, performing their duties with skill, determination and valor,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.
Despite their outstanding service records, the Tuskegee Airmen faced racism and bigotry. “In truth, they fought two wars: one overseas against a military enemy and another here at home against segregation and discrimination,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.
He awarded a scroll to the Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation, which provides college scholarships to financially disadvantaged and deserving students.
The Foundation’s executive director, Edward Grice, said, “The Tuskegee Airmen are not just black heroes, they are American heroes, American patriots. They fought gallantly for the ideals of freedom and demonstrated outstanding courage and valor in the face of unbeatable odds.”
“The Tuskegee Airmen defied the stereotypes that others placed on them and proved that dedication and commitment are the true characteristics of success — not race,” he said. “They stand as living testaments to the triumph of good over evil and represent the genuine qualities necessary for true greatness.”
In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army Air Corps to form a segregated flying unit, comprised only of African Americans. About 16,000 men and women trained at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to become air traffic controllers, bombardiers, flight instructors, mechanics, navigators, officers, radio technicians, weather forecasters, instructors and maintenance and support staff.
The first black flying unit was activated on March 22, 1941, and the first black pilots were inducted on March 7, 1942. Overall, 992 pilots graduated at Tuskegee Army Air Field from 1942 through 1946, and they flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and 1,200 missions. Among their achievements: 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 31 Purple Hearts and 14 Bronze Stars.
In 1948, President Harry Truman enacted Executive Order 9981, mandating equality of treatment and opportunity in the U.S. Armed Forces, which helped end racial segregation in the military and became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.