A New Report from the National Research Council Sheds Light on Developmental Competency Among Juveniles

A few weeks ago, we took a little detour from our focus on mental competency to stand trial in adult criminal court to discussing the special challenges of juveniles adjudicated both in juvenile and in adult courts.  I also mentioned the work of Richard Bonnie who has done a lot of work around decisional competence.  Well, the National Research Council has recently released a new report where Bonnie is one of the editors that has gained some attention in legal circles.  Although the scope of the report is much broader than the issue of competency, speaking to juvenile justice system reform, it does offer more insight into the issue of competency where juveniles are involved.  These questions of course are quite timely in many states where juveniles are tried in adult criminal court and in places like North Carolina and New York where the age of responsibility is still 16 (and where there are movements to have the age raised).

The report is actually quite a remarkable work for those of you interested in juvenile justice reform, so I encourage your review of it.  I pull an excerpt here that speaks to developmental competence in the context of juveniles.  The following is from 5-8 to 5-9 of the document.

The developmental immaturity of juveniles may affect their ability to exercise their rights and to participate competently in proceedings adjudicating their criminal charges, whether these proceedings occur in juvenile courts or criminal courts. The Constitution requires that defendants be afforded certain rights when they are suspected of and charged with crimes to ensure that the proceedings are fair. Because of adolescents’ reduced capacity for reasoning and understanding and psychosocial immaturity, they may be less capable of exercising their rights than are adults (Grisso, 1981). The Supreme Court recognized this point indirectly in JDB v. North Carolina (2010) in rejecting the statement of a 13-year-old made without Miranda warnings. The Court held that the age of the youth questioned by a police officer in a school conference room must be considered in evaluating whether it was reasonable for him to believe he was not free to leave. Research shows that juveniles are far more likely than adults to waive their right to remain silent (Grisso, 1980) and to confess to crimes (and even to make false confessions) than are adults (Scott et al., 1995). Juveniles under age 15 have a poorer comprehension of their right to remain silent, as do 15- and 16-year-olds with below-average intelligence (Grisso, 1981). Juveniles are also more likely to waive their right to an attorney than are adults charged with crimes, despite the fact that they are less capable of protecting their interests in the justice system. (See Chapters 3 and 7.)

A criminal defendant must be competent to stand trial for a criminal proceeding to meet the requirements of constitutional due process. According to the Supreme Court, to satisfy this constitutional requirement, the defendant must be capable of assisting his or her attorney with his  defense and must have a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him or her.3 The competence requirement has typically been applied to protect mentally ill and disabled adults; it has also been applied in juvenile delinquency proceedings to cases involving youth with mental disabilities. However, as greater numbers of youth have become eligible for prosecution in adult criminal court under law reforms in recent decades, courts and legislatures have recognized the concept of developmental incompetence (Scott and Grisso, 2005). Research evidence indicates that about 33 percent of 11- to 13-year-olds and 20 percent of 14- and 15- year-olds may not be competent to stand trial under the standard applied to adults due to their developmental immaturity (Grisso et al., 2003). Many younger teens may simply lack the capacity for understanding and reasoning to comprehend the trial and its consequences or to be able to assist the attorney. Even older adolescents may be less capable of making decisions that criminal defendants must make—such as the decision to accept a plea offer. Justice Anthony Kennedy in Graham v. Florida (2010)4 recognized that the developmental immaturity of adolescent defendants could undermine the ability of their attorneys to adequately represent them in criminal proceedings, unfairly resulting in erroneous convictions. The possibility that many younger teens are not competent to participate in criminal proceedings poses a serious challenge to the prosecution of juveniles as adults and raises an important concern that must be addressed even in juvenile delinquency proceedings.

The full citation for the report is National Research Council. (2012). Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. Committee on Assessing Juvenile Justice Reform, Richard J. Bonnie, Robert L. Johnson, Betty M. Chemers, and Julie A. Schuck, Eds. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.  You can read the report for free at the National Academies Press website here.

Comments are closed.