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Tarek Azzam introduces evidence for LA's juvenile court

Advocates of reform in Los Angeles County’s juvenile court system have long had a clear impediment: lack of information. Juvenile defendants’ records are confidential, making evaluations of court processes nearly impossible. But in 2010 a team of researchers featuring School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences Assistant Professor Tarek Azzam received a court order granting them access. Their findings provide much-needed evidence to those looking to ensure every youth receives equal treatment.

In Los Angeles County Superior Court, juvenile defendants who cannot afford legal representation receive either a contract-panel attorney or a public defender. Public defenders are salaried employees and their compensation has no bearing on how many cases they take. Contract-panel attorneys basically operate like freelancers: they are generally paid $320 to $345 per assigned client.

Cyn Yamashiro, a faculty member at Loyola Law School, spent 10 years as an attorney in LA’s Public Defender’s Office. While there, he observed what he believed to be a diminished quality of representation from the contract-panel attorneys compared to public defenders. This was not due to incompetence or laziness, but a flawed incentive structure. Contract-panel attorneys not only have a fiduciary interest in taking on additional (perhaps too many) clients, but also are limited in the amount of time they can spend with those they represent given the low-compensation structure.

Additionally, public defenders can draw on the resources unavailable to contract-panel attorneys. One example: If a public defender needs an expert witness, their office can cover the witness’ appearance fee. Contract-panel attorneys would need to pay that cost out of their own (hardly deep) pockets.

Though Yamashiro was confident in his conclusions, his push for reform was met with a request for evidence. Since he is a lawyer, not a researcher, he needed tools to help test his hypothesis. These tools became available after meeting Tarek Azzam.

“It was the perfect mix for a collaboration,” Azzam said. “He didn’t have a background in research. I didn’t have a background in law. We spent the first few months learning from each other about our respective fields.”

From these conversations emerged a study that ultimately included 180 variables detailing the background of the juvenile defendants, what the attorneys did to represent them, and the final verdict of the case.  

The big breakthrough came when they were awarded a court order allowing them access to approximately 40,000 juvenile case files.

“We sent a team into the courthouse archives. They had to take out each paper file by hand, search out information, and put it into a database that we created,” Azzam said. “We used a random sample of about 4,000 cases, but it still took over two years to compile the data we needed.”

That data ended up supporting what Yamashiro had suspected: juveniles represented by contract-panel attorneys were less likely to have petitions filed on their behalf, more likely to be convicted of a higher crime category (felony as opposed to misdemeanor), and more likely to get lengthier sentences.

In addition, the group did preliminary cost analysis and found that while the county saves money by employing contract-panel attorneys, the extra costs of lengthier sentences and harsher punishments (such as detention instead of probation) brought about through insufficient representation could total over $50 million.

Of course, dollar figures are minor concerns compared to the human toll of an inequitable justice system. To that end, Azzam and Yamashiro plan to both publicize these findings and build on them.

“One of our ideas is tracking the defendants we found in our initial review, as they go into the adult system,” said Azzam. “We want to get a better idea of what the long-term effects are of having a contract-panel attorney. And this one should be easier, since the adult database is publicly available.”

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