CJLP Director Cyn Yamashiro

To Solve Problem of Inadequate Juvenile Representation, Prof. Yamashiro Does the Math

When Cyn Yamashiro ‘93 launched Loyola’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy (CJLP) eight years ago, he knew that simply identifying a problem in the juvenile justice system wasn’t enough to effect change – he had to prove it.

Through his experience as a deputy public defender in Los Angeles County, where he tried 52 cases to a jury and litigated more than 200 bench trials, Yamashiro and his colleagues noted what they deemed an erosion of best practices among contract panel attorneys in juvenile courts.

Contract panel attorneys are private lawyers hired by the county. They represent approximately 35 percent of juvenile defendants in the system. These attorneys receive a flat fee of about $350 a case, according to Yamashiro, regardless of the severity of the charges or the eventual duration of the case.

Yamashiro, the Kaplan & Feldman Executive Director of the CJLP, said legal experts are unanimous in their condemnation of the practice, arguing that it could incentivize private attorneys to spend less time with clients.

Along with co-authors Tarek Azzam of Claremont Graduate University and Igor Himmelfarb of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Yamashiro undertook a nearly six-year study to determine whether contract panel attorneys behave differently than public defenders in juvenile courts, and if so, whether or not that makes a difference.

After analyzing approximately 4,000 individual cases, the answer was a resounding “yes."

One of the more dramatic findings in the trio’s study, “Kids, Counsel and Costs: an Empirical Study of Indigent Defense Services in the Los Angeles Juvenile Delinquency Courts,” came after the authors devised a mathematical model to predict and understand  differences in how those two groups of lawyers acted and if it affected their clients’ ultimate dispositions. Accounting for factors such as age, ethnicity and criminal history – they found that they could predict that juveniles represented by contract panel attorneys would be sentenced at higher levels 34 percent of the time.

Yamashiro has an explanation: Lawyers from the public defender’s office tended to be more active in the defense of juveniles. “They filed more written motions, formally requested that their clients get released from custody more frequently, and had more experts and psychologists appointed on behalf of their clients,” he said.  In addition, and more importantly, Yamashiro noted that the cultures of the two groups of attorneys were very different:  “The L.A. County Public Defender’s Office has a culture that values zealous advocacy, and an extensive vetting and training program.” 

But Yamashiro and his co-authors didn’t stop there. They wanted to see how much money the county would save if contract panel attorneys adhered to best practices more often. Using their model, they found that the county would save about $30 million annually if the Probation Department had 34 percent fewer juveniles in its military-style boot camps, the destination for many convicted juveniles.

Already a pioneer in legal advocacy education, Yamashiro said he hopes the groundbreaking study has a “concrete impact on the way people practice law.” It will be published in an upcoming issue of the Criminal Law Bulletin.

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