Los Angeles County supervisors are considering an overhaul of the county's system for defending juveniles accused of crimes.
Under-age criminal defendants who can't afford a lawyer are generally represented by someone from the county public defender's office. But when that office is already representing another defendant in the case or a special circumstance arises, lawyers from a separate panel step in to remove the potential conflict of interest.
Advocates argue that the switch creates another problem: The private lawyers the county contracts with for these cases, known as panel attorneys, are paid less — a flat rate of $319 to $345 per case — and may not represent their clients as vigorously.
"Children charged with crimes are not only entitled to competent representation but an opportunity to avoid the prison pipeline if it is at all possible to do so," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who proposed the review.
At the supervisors' meeting Tuesday, Antonia Casas, 42, said her son, now 16, did not get a fair shot when he was charged with attempted murder in 2012. His appointed panel attorney did not fight to prevent him being tried as an adult, she said. Once sent to adult court, he faced 90 years in prison if convicted.
The alternate public defender who took the case at that point filed an appeal and succeeded in having the case sent back to juvenile court. There, Casas' son took a plea bargain and is now serving a nine-month sentence in juvenile camp.
"This is the difference between a good and bad lawyer," Casas said after the board hearing.
A Loyola Law School report released last year analyzed about 3,000 Los Angeles County juvenile cases and concluded that, on average, youths represented by panel attorneys got more severe convictions and heavier sentences than those represented by public defenders. The researchers also found that public defenders were more active than panel attorneys in filing motions, bringing in experts and seeking pretrial release of their clients. Critics have taken issue with the methodology, saying that the analyses failed to consider factors besides the attorney that might have played a role.
A group of organizations and individuals — including Hollywood producer Scott Budnick and UC Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky — wrote to the supervisors before Tuesday's meeting, saying that the low flat fee builds a perverse incentive into the county's indigent defense system.
A number of juvenile court judges wrote letters praising the panel attorneys. Pasadena Judge Robin Miller Sloan wrote that they often handle the most serious cases and “are committed to providing their clients with the best defense possible notwithstanding the flat fee they receive.”
But Supervisor Gloria Molina argued that the issue is about standards and accountability for juvenile attorneys, not compensation.
"Paying lawyers more does not get you better representation," she said. "I wish it did."
Attorney Gary Farwell, who was head of the juvenile panel at Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center until it closed last year, agreed that the county should review the resources allocated to juvenile representation, but defended the work of his colleagues.
"We have hardworking, devoted people who do far more than what they're paid on many cases," he said. "It's not the people who are the panel attorneys that are the problem. It's the system of resources available to the panel attorneys that's the problem."
The board voted unanimously to hire a consultant to look at attorneys' pay along with a broad set of other issues in the juvenile defense system.
The review will include looking at the compensation systems in other counties and the resources and training given to attorneys. It will also consider a set of guidelines for defense attorneys proposed by Michael Nash, presiding judge of the county's Juvenile Court.