L.A. County shifts indigent attorney program to public defender

A program that provides private legal representation for some of the poorest defendants is undergoing major changes this year for the first time in a quarter century after Los Angeles County decided not to renew a long-standing bar association. contract to manage it with taxpayers’ money.

Instead, the independent defense program will be handled by the office of public defender Ricardo García, county officials said. The move has outraged some in García’s office, who say they are already overburdened with cases and he doesn’t need to take on more responsibilities.

The change underscores the dysfunction in representing poor defendants in the nation’s largest court system, where private attorneys were hired to represent needy clients in about 5,800 cases in 2022, according to the LA County Bar Association. It highlights both a history of problems managing the program at the district attorney’s office and concerns about the public defender’s ability to do better — especially within the budget set by the district.

The change follows last year’s recognition by the county bar association that it had poorly overseen the program’s independent attorneys and a request by the organization to increase its annual program budget from $2.7 million to about $9.4 million more than triple so they could deploy it better in the future.

García’s office said it will oversee the $4.3 million-a-year program.

The Office of LA County Chief Executive Fesia Davenport said the transition would not result in any disruption in legal services to program clients, some of whom are facing felony charges.

The county is required by law to provide poor defendants with a defense attorney if they cannot afford one, and usually does so through García’s office. In cases where there would be a conflict of interest for his office to represent a defendant, the case is handled by an attorney in the County Assistant Public Defender’s Office. Both offices are staffed by attorneys who are employed by the county but work separately.

In cases where legal conflicts prevent the public defender’s office from representing a defendant — for example, in cases involving three or more destitute co-defendants with opposing legal strategies who simultaneously need separate representation — the district pays a private “panel” attorney for advice as part of the Independent Defense Program.

In order to run both the public defender’s office and the independent program, García must put in place a legal “firewall” between the two – to ensure separate staff, offices and access to legal files.

In an interview with The Times, García said he was “100% confident” in his team’s ability to make the necessary separations and manage the program appropriately.

He said the move would have “zero impact” on existing staff at the public defender’s office unless they were transferred to the team on the new program, which he has handed over to assistant public defender Marco Saenz. Those who move will be replaced and there will be “no economic or direct resource impact” on the public defender’s office, he said.

Others expressed doubts.

Brooke Longuevan, president of the LA County Public Defenders Union, said in a statement to The Times that her organization and the many overworked attorneys she represents are “stunned” by the move.

“Given the magnitude of our workload crisis, we are deeply concerned by Mr. García’s ability to respond to the needs of our attorneys and clients while overseeing an unprecedented transition at the public defender’s office,” she said.

Sean Kennedy, a professor at Loyola Law School, a former federal public defender and a member of a committee that helped oversee the program under the county bar association, said housing the independent program in García’s office raises serious questions for needy clients on – including where García’s priorities lie, the interests of the public defenders and the independent panel will collide, such as with budget cuts.

“The concern here is that during difficult budget times, the public defender’s office might prioritize its own interests and its own clients over the interests and clients of the independent panel,” Kennedy said.

Given the caseload issues at the public defender’s office, moving another program under García “just seems like an odd switch,” Kennedy said.

“It would have been a much better process to have some sort of stakeholder input and maybe allow public meetings or something like that so you can weigh all the factors,” Kennedy said, “because we should be concerned with more than the cost if we there is talk about representing people in need.”

The new agreement, which mirrors one in San Diego, follows last year’s decision by the Davenport office to extend the district attorney’s contract without a bid and under one roof – which it defended by saying the district attorney’s office had “effective and efficient” oversight accomplished the program and was uniquely qualified to do so.

The acquisition by García’s office came as a surprise to the county bar association and the more than 20 employees working on the program. Some found out about the change — and the fact that they could soon be out of work — when García announced it in a letter to his staff just days before Christmas.

Davenport’s office said the decision was based on months of analysis of “opportunities to leverage existing economies of scale and improve service delivery,” discussions with the San Diego Bar Association, García’s office and the Office of the San Diego Public Defender, and “internal discussions.” included. on the budget proposals presented by the Bar Association and the office of García.

The Davenport office thanked the district attorney’s office for overseeing the program in the past. It failed to mention that it is conducting a group contract review due in March amid allegations of mismanagement and financial misconduct.

Former panel lawyers have accused legal leaders — including Cyn Yamashiro, lead counsel for the Independent Defense Program — of ousting them without reason and on racially discriminatory grounds and embezzling program funds to pay for other legal work. Yamashiro, an attorney and law professor who for years has focused on representing destitute defendants, and other attorney officials have denied the allegations, calling them baseless attacks by attorneys who refuse to bail out during a major restructuring organized by Yamashiro last year program to be removed .

According to communications between the district attorney’s office and county officials reviewed by The Times, Yamashiro decided to reassess the qualifications of all participating attorneys for the first time in years after taking over the program and receiving complaints about inadequate legal representation.

Officials with the Independent Juvenile Defender Program, which represents juveniles whose cases have been referred back to juvenile court, reported “serious deficiencies” by panel counsel before their cases were referred, according to a February letter from the LA County Bar Assn. to the county officials.

Officials with the California Appellate Project, which represents destitute youth and adults in appeals, also complained, producing a list of attorneys they “identified as problematic” and “whose performance fell below standards of competency” — sometimes resulting in appeals based on Allegations of “ineffective assistance from counsel,” the letter reads.

When district attorney officials searched the State Bar of California’s disciplinary records, they also found that some panel counsel who had not been screened in years had been found guilty of serious professional misconduct, the letter said.

In response, the county bar association changed the rules for the program, requiring that all attorneys interested in serving on the board in 2022 submit a new application, whether or not they have attended in previous years . She then flagged the attorneys who were the subject of complaints or disciplinary action and re-examined their applications.

As a result, dozens of lawyers were rejected, including 27 who had been in the program in 2021. Accusations of mismanagement soon followed.

District Attorney officials said the decision to ask the district to more than triple its budget to oversee and administer the independent defense program was based on their conclusion that such funding was necessary to ensure panel attorneys were better trained, checked more frequently and adhered to the high standards that their customers deserve.

Stuart Glovin, a former public defender and a member of the attorney program’s executive committee, said Yamashiro took all the right steps to serve needy clients and improve the program when the district abruptly halted contract negotiations to hand it over to García’s office.

He also questioned whether the budget proposed by García’s office — less than half that of the bar — would be enough to ensure quality oversight of the program.

“If you get discounted funding, you’re probably going to get discounted agency,” he said. “It’s sad, but it’s true.”

Longuevan, president of the Public Defenders Union, echoed this idea, saying she believes the district is “prioritising austerity measures over the needs of poor clients” – just as it has done with the Public Defender’s Office.

For years, many of the county’s public defenders have been frustrated by their workload, which has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, a Times investigation found that many attorneys had case loads three times their norm. More than 120 of about 180 respondents to a recent union survey described their workload as “unmanageable,” and more than 140 said they were unable to adequately prepare for cases.

The public defender’s office doesn’t track individual attorneys’ caseloads, but García has questioned the scale of the problem.

Several lawyers for the office – who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation – said they were frustrated by García’s decision to take over the independent body while his office is in crisis.

“He asked for more resources, but the county didn’t provide those resources and nothing has changed,” said an assistant public defender. “A lot of people are worried about the clients they’re representing.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-09/la-me-la-county-shifts-attorney-program-to-public-defender L.A. County shifts indigent attorney program to public defender

Alley Einstein

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