LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to have the Alternate Public Defender’s office represent juvenile offenders when the Public Defender’s office cannot, a move away from “panel attorneys” in the wake of criticisms about unequal representation.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl recommended the shift.
“This has been a long time coming,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Those who have been denied and those who have been neglected … are now going to be able to feel as if they are being properly represented.”
Public defenders are the first stop for juveniles charged with a crime and unable to pay for their own attorney. When the Public Defender’s office has a conflict of interest, the county has paid court-appointed “panel attorneys” to take cases.
But a report commissioned by the county and released this spring by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the UC Berkeley School of Law found that juvenile justice was “markedly uneven,” depending on whether the accused were assigned public defenders or panel attorneys.
“There are a lot of panel attorneys who have done a very, very good job; (however) the data showed that there were gaps,” Kuehl said. UC Berkeley researchers found that panel attorneys — who represent a higher proportion of juveniles who end up being tried as adults — spend, on average, about half as much time defending their clients. On average, they file fewer motions, consult fewer experts and provide less documentation to support clients than public defenders.
The supervisors said even more is demanded of those who represent minors than those with adult clients.
“Unlike adult defense, juvenile defense attorneys fulfill a dual role: they must defend their clients against the allegation and must advocate for their clients’ broader care, treatment and guidance both before and after disposition of the criminal charges,” the supervisors’ motion says.
Panel lawyers connect one in 100 youths they represent to a social worker after their case is resolved, according to the report. Public defenders make that link for about one-third of their clients.
The county pays panel attorneys a flat fee of $340 to $360, regardless of the specifics of the case, a practice that has been criticized by the State Bar and seen as one reason for the uneven representation.
The board considered a number of solutions, including eliminating the flat-fee rate, paying the bar association to oversee panel attorneys, hiring more alternate public defenders and merging the Public Defender’s and Alternate Public Defender’s offices.
The supervisors on Tuesday chose to hire the APD when conflicts exist and then, when both the PD and ADP are unable to take on a case, to have the Los Angeles County Bar Association provide administration and oversight of court- appointed panel attorneys.
Some defense attorneys objected.
“Why are you considering replacing your most experienced attorneys?” asked Robert Bolinger of the Los Padrinos Juvenile Panel, telling the board that the average attorney on that panel has more than 32 years of experience.
Another lawyer, Gary Farwell, said, “We are not the problem. It is the system and structure itself.”
Panel attorneys negotiating a new contract were already demanding an hourly rate rather than a flat fee, according to Kuehl.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich suggested having the bar oversee all non- PD attorneys rather than asking the ADP to step in.
County Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai said the cost of adding bar oversight to all non-PD cases would cost about $200,000 more than having the ADP serve next in line to the PD and using panel attorneys overseen by the bar as a last resort. She estimated the latter option at $10.5 million.
Antonovich argued that the decision to hire more staff for the ADP’s office would be hard to unwind as juvenile case numbers dropped. He asked that the vote be delayed for additional cost analysis and ultimately abstained from the vote.