Juvenile Competency To Stand Trial

The Supreme Court has long considered competency to be a right of the criminal defendant in court. In many areas, insanity has been a criminal defense with a significant history. However, in the early part of this century, adult protections, including the competency requirement and common defenses like insanity, were not added into the juvenile court system. Because juvenile courts were established to protect juveniles from the rigors of adult court and punishments in adult facilities, states focused on achieving proceedings more compatible with juveniles’ needs.
Over the last decade, many state legislatures have offered better options and procedures for handling delinquent juveniles. Many states have also extended their juvenile codes for not only the welfare of the child, but for the safety of the community and the protection of the rights of the victim(s). Moreover, many states have also amended their transfer qualifications so that only the most serious of crimes are tried in adult court. As a result, the competency requirement and the insanity defense have gained renewed importance.
The issue of juvenile competency began to form in the early 1990’s from a dramatic increase in violent offenses by juveniles. A juvenile offender can be technically classified as “incompetent” for a number of reasons: developmental immaturity, mental illness, too young, or in the state of emotional shock. A criminal defendant MUST be capable of meaningful participation in his defense and must be able to make decisions, such as exercising or waiving important rights. Further, the criminal defendant must posses the ability to understand the charges, the trial process, other participants’ roles in the trial, and his or her rights.

Current research shows that by ages 13 and 14 the average youth tends to have a basic idea of the roles of people in the trial process. Likewise, they can understand that defendants are charged with offenses and that the consequences can be serious. Also, it is around this age when youths think of a right as “belonging” to them, and that they can waive it or use it. The big question is their ability to deal with “abstract” legal concepts that are grasped by most adults. Even at ages 14 to 16, only of youths described a right as an entitlement. For example, when a police officer says to an arrested juvenile, “you have the right to remain silent,” groups of youths described it as, “you can be silent unless you are told to talk,” or “you have to be quiet unless you are spoken to.”
Age by itself is a bad indicator of whether youths have reached an adult level of knowledge of the legal process. Juveniles have various types of thinking and emotional disabilities; thus, it takes them longer to reach their adult-like potential. Also, many courts and many people believe that youths that have been repeatedly arrested and exposed to court trials have a better understanding of legal matters. Current research does not support this. Some juveniles will definitely learn from these experiences and may even become advanced in the understanding of the trial process; others will learn nothing at all. Therefore, just because a youthful offender is a repeated one, it does not mean that he/she will understand the trial process and his or her rights.
Developmental psychologists have concluded that youths with attention deficit disorder (ADD) / hyperactivity disorder are very vulnerable to distractions and the significance of trial may escape them. In many cases involving a youth whose mental retardation seriously impaired his ability to communicate “a meaningful, and chronological account of events,” competency should definitely be questioned, and the case should be dismissed.

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In addition to mental retardation, communication problems can occur from developmental delays and emotional immaturity. This can happen, even though one may be intellectually sound. However, assisting counsel requires more than being able to watch, listen, and communicate. The defendant must also see his or her attorney as someone with whom discussions about the events are meaningful. Many misconceptions arise from this. For example, one study asked a group of kids why defendants must be truthful with their lawyers. About one third of them believed that this was necessary so that the lawyer could decide whether or not “to advocate the defendants interests, to report the defendants guilt to the court, or decide whether to let him go or send him up.”It is reasonable to imagine why some youths have these misconceptions. For some of them, past experience with adults in authority gives no reason for them to believe that an adult in a professional role would take their side against other adults.

Many cases have occurred where the question of competency of a defendant has been questioned. For example, “Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402 (1982). At age 14, Jimmy was charged with second-degree murder. Under a new state law, juvenile courts could not preside over murder cases, and so Jimmy was charged in adult criminal court and given public counsel.

As Jimmy’s attorney began to investigate the case, she found that the evidence against Jimmy was less than conclusive. For example, the witness who identified Jimmy had been drinking and saw the event only from a distance in poor light. When he was arrested, Jimmy initially told police officers he wasn’t there; after considerable questioning, he tearfully said, “I did it-I want to go home,” at which point his mother insisted the officers stop questioning Jimmy because he looked ill.

Upon visiting Jimmy at the juvenile detention center, the attorney’s hopes of getting a more complete story quickly evaporated. Although Jimmy was 14, he acted much younger. It took a long time for her to get Jimmy to say anything to her. He acted shy and scared, as though he saw her more as a school principal than as his attorney. After several visits, he finally began responding to her questions, but most of his answers consisted of shrugs, nods, and partial sentences.

Over the course of several interviews, his explanations of the evening came out in unrelated pieces that failed to produce a consistent picture. For example, he eventually told her he was with two other boys the night of the murder, but he said he didn’t know who they were, causing the lawyer to question whether Jimmy was fabricating or protecting the other boys. Further, it was impossible to understand, from Jimmy’s account, exactly when and where he was with the other boys. She soon found, however, that Jimmy described other events in this same manner, even those which he had no reason to avoid or conceal. The attorney hoped her line of defense never required Jimmy to testify; it would be a disaster.
When it came time to decide whether to plead guilty, Jimmy grew increasingly apathetic, distant, and disinterested. Despite the attorney’s careful efforts to explain the potential consequences of a conviction, and Jimmy’s ability to seemingly understand, she began to doubt whether Jimmy had any real notion of a long-range future. As far as she could tell, he rarely thought beyond the Nintendo sessions that the detention center allowed him every afternoon. Her concern about his ability to comprehend the true details of his legal predicament increased when, contrary to her advice, Jimmy said he wanted to plead guilty.” (See: Juvenile competency to stand trial: Questions in an era of punitive reform, by Thomas Grisso)
Cases like Jimmy’s have to be closely looked at. For example, in Georgia, a twelve year old boy was charged with aggravated sodomy of two younger children. The defense attorney argued that the youth was diagnosed with mental retardation, and therefore could not give a consistent account of the event, and it impaired counsel from obtaining information critical to the boy’s defense. The judge denied the motion explaining that Georgia did not have laws protecting incompetent juveniles from being tried in delinquency proceedings.

Not only do courts recognize incomplete development and incompetence, but most states’ laws recognize lack of development. For example, the law does not believe that kids under the age of sixteen are capable of deciding about their medical treatments, entering binding contracts, or operating automobiles. How could the law then turn around and prosecute someone in this category?


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