A 41-page independent study has praised the LA County Public Defender’s holistic approach to juvenile legal services as “highly effective.”

Called Client Assessment Recommendation and Evaluation (CARE), the award-winning Juvenile Division program extends legal representation to include intervention. To greatly reduce recidivism, youths work with their trial lawyer and paralegals in addition to in-house social workers and resource attorneys who specialize in mental health and educational advocacy.

Since 1999, CARE has linked clients to critical services in areas including mental illness, intellectual or developmental disability, special education, commercial sexual exploitation, homelessness, trauma, abuse and neglect. After analyzing 886 youths who received the extended services and 1,224 who did not, the study found that CARE clients had significantly less repeat contact with the juvenile justice system.

Further, several justice partners reported that CARE clients received better community services and placements, leading to more successful case outcomes. The collaboration between CARE staff and partners produced improved dispositional outcomes — including dismissals due to competency — fewer restrictive dispositions and placements into halls and camps.

Judges interviewed for the report noted that when a plan for a client has been established by the CARE team, they often come to different legal decisions.

“I might be more comfortable with probation actually if I know we can get the youth into therapy and CARE helps lay the groundwork for that,” one judge said. “I also think it helps with the prosecutor who is concerned with public safety because they don’t want that youth to repeat their mistakes.”

Another added, “As a bench officer, you might have a case and think ‘if these allegations are true, this disposition is going to be … a slam dunk.’ Then you find out that this kid has autism and now you are viewing that behavior a little differently.

“I don’t get that information from Probation. CARE has a positive influence in that regard.”

According to the study, “CARE is a beneficial early intervention program that helps youth with very complicated needs. CARE not only helps clients access the services they require to be successful in life, but reduces barriers to stabilization and involvement with the justice system.

“Moreover, the LA County Public Defender’s Office’s CARE Project is an impressive model for holistic legal representation.”

The analysis was conducted by Resource Development Associates (RDA), an independent consulting firm based in Oakland, Calif., that serves government and non-profit organizations throughout the country. It was funded by the LA County Quality and Productivity Commission.

In its report, RDA recommended extending CARE services to all clients in the Juvenile Division. They also advised:

•                  Extending services beyond dispositions (sentencing), helping clients obtain access to mental health services and medical assistance and reenroll in school.

•                  Providing ongoing training to all Public Defender attorneys about accessing and utilizing the CARE Project’s services.

•                  Enhancing data collection — researching and implementing a structured assessment tool for client screening, identifying needs, triaging and referring clients to services.

“If the CARE Project can implement the recommendations listed above, RDA believes that CARE would be a very strong candidate for the additional research that would be required to qualify it as a promising or best practice,” the report said.

A former client spoke highly of the program and the CARE social worker assigned to him.

“She was like a mentor basically but she was still my social worker though. … She made me think about my actions and start taking advice … and thinking before you do something. She made me start thinking about my future.”

On Aug. 17, the Public Defender learned it will receive a grant from Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act funds in the amount of $705,657 for six additional psychiatric social workers to the CARE Project.

Since 1914, the LA County Public Defender has defended the liberty interests of indigent clients, protected their rights and advocated for access to resources — leading them to become productive members of the community.