Travell Lincome was a 15-year-old special education student when he was charged two years ago with assault with a deadly weapon. He and a 16-year-old friend had allegedly thrown bleach at a woman and her baby at a South Los Angeles car wash.
His friend, who faced similar charges, got a public defender. To avoid a conflict of interest, Travell was assigned to one of the private lawyers Los Angeles County contracts with for such cases.
In the county's juvenile justice system, defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney face two distinct — and critics argue unequal — paths.
Most minors facing criminal charges in juvenile court are represented by public defenders paid a salary — $62,000 to start — with access to specially trained staff and experts in an office with an annual budget of $15.5 million.
Others, like Travell, are assigned to one of 64 private lawyers paid a flat fee, no more than $345 a case, no matter how complex. If these attorneys, known as panel lawyers, want to hire experts to evaluate their clients or interpret their records, they have to petition the court to cover the cost.
Eight months after the arrests, Travell's friend admitted to some of the allegations in a plea deal, and he was sentenced to about eight years in juvenile detention.
More than two years after he was first incarcerated, Travell is still waiting for resolution. While his older friend was sentenced as a juvenile, Travell's case was transferred to adult court. There, he got an alternate public defender, who said it was immediately clear that Travell "was unable to have the most basic of conversations." Along the way a probation official described him as "one of the least mentally fit minors in our custody."
Last month, a juvenile court judge found that Travell's panel lawyer had "failed to provide Travell with even a minimal level of representation," and Travell's case was transferred back to juvenile court.
"If we're going to have any effective system of juvenile justice, those kids need an effective advocate sitting next to them," said Shay Bilchik, a former L.A. County prosecutor who founded the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "It's what these kids deserve, and it's what we would want for our own children."
Questions about equity for juvenile offenders come as a group of California legal experts is nearing the end of a three-year, $100,000 study — paid for by the MacArthur Foundation grant — on improving juvenile representation statewide.
"There are concerns that the outcomes for children represented by panel attorneys are not as good as they are for other children," said Susan Burrell, a staff attorney with the Youth Law Center in San Francisco working on the project.
A separate study underway at the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School is examining what factors affect the outcome of juvenile case in Los Angeles County, including the type of attorney, said Cyn Yamashiro, the center's executive director. Researchers have reviewed more than 3,500 randomly selected cases, and their findings are expected this month, Yamashiro said.
In Los Angeles County juvenile court, panel attorneys have not always worked for flat-rate pay. Before 1993, they were paid by the hour — earning in some cases as much as $2,500, according to former panel attorney Sherry Gold, who left to join the adult alternate public defender division in 1995 amid changes in how juvenile court panel attorneys were paid.
"Costs were uncontrollable, which was the catalyst for the shift," said Ryan Alsop, a spokesman for the county's chief executive's office.
Some longtime panel attorneys who stayed say they are still able to serve clients well.
"You make up for the cases that require a lot of time with those that don't require much time, and there are a lot of them," said Gary Farwell, who supervises the panel at Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Los Angeles.
At least one supervisor's office defended panel lawyers as skilled, affordable alternatives to public defenders.
"You have experienced defense attorneys who represent juveniles for a living, not as a stepping stone, not as a beginning of their career. Paying them more isn't going to enhance their ability to represent these juveniles, or paying them hourly versus a flat fee," said Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy to L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, adding that, "We have to make prudent decisions especially in this fiscal climate."
Pembedjian said the county's chief executive surveyed judges, public defenders and prosecutors on the performance of panel lawyers each year. However, the county has never released the results of these surveys to the public.
Among urban California counties that use panel lawyers to resolve conflicts, L.A. appears to stand apart in its use of a one-payment-fits-all-cases strategy.