Indigent juvenile defendants who are assigned private attorneys may be at a disadvantage in court, according to a Loyola Law School study due to be published in September. (A copy is below.)
Los Angeles County keeps a panel of private attorneys to handle cases that the Public Defender's Office cannot take due to a conflict of interest. For instance, if police arrest two children who are accused of stealing a car together, each is entitled to an attorney from a different organization. According to the county's Chief Executive Office, the county paid just over $3.7 million to private panel attorneys for 11,264 cases during the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
Loyola Law Professor Cyn Yamashiro studied 4,000 juvenile court files in L.A. County and determined that, on average, those represented by panel attorneys tend to end up at a higher level of supervision and spend more time in juvenile probation camps than those represented by public defenders.
Yamashiro thinks that might have something to do with the fact that private attorneys are paid a $320-$345 flat fee by the county for each case, regardless of its complexity.
"It's a single fee that has to pay for all the legal work that's done on a case," the professor said. "It has the opposite financial incentive that you would want as a defendant. You'd want the attorney rewarded for doing more work, not penalized."
Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he plans to introduce a motion on Tuesday instructing the Chief Executive Office to look into the pay system, recommend alternatives and assess any fiscal impact.
"The theory is if the representation was adequate, it would cause a more cost-effective outcome," Ridley-Thomas said.
Yamashiro's study estimated 560-570 kids each year would have gotten lesser sanctions and not been sent to juvenile camps if they had been represented by more active attorneys.
Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of L.A. County's juvenile courts, said he's not opposed to increasing the pay of defense attorneys for indigent juveniles.
"I don't think anyone in their right mind would disagree with that notion," Nash said.
The judge said there are terrific private attorneys who represent such kids – along with other great and not-so great lawyers, regardless of whether they're private or public defenders. And no one gets paid enough.
"This is an area where the compensation and the resources have always been far short of what it needs to be to provide truly competent or better representation," Nash said.
Simply talking about pay stops short of fixing the issue, the judge said. A bigger problem is ensuring adequate training, accountability, and support for handling juvenile cases.
Nash convened a panel of experts on juvenile courts to come up with a set of standards for representing children. He hopes to finalize and present the findings to the board of supervisors in the coming months.
"And then the board of supervisors, through their responsibility, can decide who can best represent youth in the system besides the public defender's office," Nash said.
That could be a flat-fee system for private attorneys (like is currently used), a system where private attorneys receive hourly pay, or a second, independent public defender's office, as is used in the adult system.