Testimony by Judge Jan G. Levine – February 11, 2014

Retired Judge Jan G. Levine delivered the testimony below in support of the February 11, 2014 motion to obtain a report on the county system for the representation of juvenile defendants in conflict situations.


Retired Judge Jan G. Levine

Members of the Board of Supervisors, Good Morning.
My name is Jan Levine.

I speak today in support of Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ Substitute Motion (for a review of Juvenile Indigent Defense Contracts.)

Almost exactly a decade ago I sat as the judge in a Juvenile Delinquency Court, first in Long Beach and then at the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Central Los Angeles.

I heard about 25 cases a day. Panel attorneys appeared before me regularly. In delinquency court, very few matters go to trial – in fact, 95-97% of all the cases filled are pled out. Thus, most of the hearings were short – 5-10 minutes or so.

For me, the hearings moved one after another, filling my day. But for the individual youth who appeared before me, that 5-10 minute hearing was the most important thing happening in their life. For many, if not most of the youth in court for an adjudication, that 5-10 minutes would certainly determine their short term future and possibly, irrevocably alter the course of their entire life.

For these youth, the most important thing that day was who was representing them. I was just the judge. I would hear only what the lawyers presented to me, most often a plea deal they had worked out, and I would take the plea. After that, at the next hearing, the lawyer and the DA and the probation department would present a recommended disposition.

Juvenile courts under state law have to have a strong rehabilitation component in addition to a punitive aspect in supervising youth. Both elements are detailed through probation conditions and requirements.

If a youth had mental health issues, or education problems, or a history of severe abuse or neglect, or needed a particular kind of placement, I needed to know that in order to assess the appropriateness of the proposed disposition plan. And for me to know it, the child’s lawyer had to know if I had been given all relevant information to do what was best for his/her client, and if I hadn’t, he/she had to present it to me, so that if necessary I could modify the terms or length of the probation.

What all of this means is that what the child’s lawyer was doing outside the court on his case was as important for the child, if not more, than what he was doing inside the court.

Ten years have passed. I have retired, but the contract panel system of conflict representation in delinquency court remains the same.

With the above in mind, let me touch on a few points about the panel system that militate against the fully effective representation of juvenile defendants precisely in the crucial respects I am talking about.

First, and most obviously, due to the flat fee paid per case, regardless of the complexity of the case, or the amount of time it deserves, panel attorneys’ compensation essentially decreases as their work on a case increases. The incentive is going in the wrong direction to insure that if a case is that should go to trial, it does.

Secondly, where’s the incentive to investigate into the circumstances of the case and the youth’s life? Even if a panel lawyer wants to dig deeper (to his own financial detriment,) panel attorneys do not have meaningful access to investigators, social workers, or legal specialists who can assist them in building a case or fashioning a disposition plan. By contrast, such diverse professionals are on staff in public defenders’ offices for the specific purpose of assisting public defenders with their cases.

Also, because the panel attorneys may have cases on calendars in several different courthouses on the same day, they often “stand in” for one another. Because of this practice, several hearings (and possibly many months) may go by before the youth and his/her attorney of record see each other again; how can either possibly know what’s going on in the case? How does the attorney know what’s going on with his/her client?

No notes from a ‘stand in’ attorney can adequately substitute for an in-person meeting between attorney and client.

Let me ask you to think about something – if this were your nephew or niece, or heaven forbid, your own child, how would you want that child’s case to proceed through this process?

The study that Supervisor Ridley-Thomas’ motion requires will illuminate the critical differences in the kind of representation a panel attorney can offer and that extended by the Public Defender, as well as other models used statewide so that at least the current imbalances can be addressed. I urge you to vote for it.