It has been established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960 that to be able to stand trial, each criminal defendant has to be competent enough (Fortunati et al., 2006, p. 35). This is a reasonable decision, for not every person can clearly understand and evaluate the situation in the court, and react adequately. But this raises an issue of assessing an individual’s level of competency to stand trial. In this paper, we will discuss the issues related to competency assessment when it comes to juvenile persons.
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How Juveniles’ and Adults’ Competency Is Assessed
In the US, the competence to stand trial means the ability to comprehend the charges, consult with one’s attorney “with a reasonable degree of rational understanding”, and understand the way one must participate in legal procedures (Mayzer, Bradley, Rusinko, & Ertelt, 2009, p. 786; Zehr, 2014, para. 2). Notably, it is hard to use such standards to create a completely formal psychological procedure. Zehr (2014) notes that, due to these standards, assessing juveniles involves evaluating both cognitive and behavioral components. While these components might as well be present in an adult’s evaluation procedure, a psychologist assessing an adolescent might also have to employ means that directly determine the juvenile person’s degree of maturation. They usually involve questions that evaluate the “grasp of the element of risk inherent in criminal proceedings and the associated ability to adopt a future orientation in weighing the risks associated with trial and plea bargaining” (Zehr, 2014, para. 11).
How Juveniles Differ From Adults in Terms of Competency
The reason for the need for such assessment is that, unlike adults, adolescents might not completely understand what some legal notions mean and how serious they are, or the potential aftermath of legal procedures and one’s actions in them (Zehr, 2014). Adolescents who undergo a trial are often found incompetent for this and often opt for choices that, for instance, demonstrate the tendency to comply with authority, or show some signs of psychological immaturity (Grisso et al., 2003). Fortunati et al. (2006) provide several criteria which show how a person might not be mature enough to be able to stand trial. The elements involved in this inability include a wrong understanding of the role of the individuals who take part in the trial, of the possible outcomes of a trial, and of the fundamental constitutional rights the defendant has. Fortunati et al. (2006) further state that simply a factual comprehension of these problems is not sufficient, and a person must be able to rationally consider the issues and speak about them with one’s attorney; a child of 9 might be able to learn about the meaning of the word “prison” or about the role of various court officials, but that does not enable them to make rational decisions.
Why Is It Important to Assess Juveniles Differently from Adults
These issues make it important to pay special attention while assessing juvenile defendants’ competency. If the defendant does not correctly understand the role of different court officials, they might e.g. start helping the prosecutor, or hindering the attorney, or lying in order not to appear a coward, or something similar to this. When the accused does not comprehend how serious a trial is and that it might lead to imprisonment, or what is imprisonment, they might think that the trial is some kind of a game, and behave accordingly. If the defendant does not know or understand their basic rights, they might significantly harm themselves or others during the trial even though they do not deserve it. And if a person is unable to rationally discuss any of the issues, they are likely to behave unreasonably during the trial.
To sum up, it should be noted that juvenile defendants might not be able to comprehend the trial process properly and act adequately. Therefore, it is important to pay special attention while assessing juveniles’ competency to stand trial and use procedures that take into account the specifics of this age group.
Fortunati, F., Morgan, C. A., Temporini, H., Southwick, S., Coric, V., & Feuerstein, S. (2006). Juveniles and competency to stand trial. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 3(3), 35-38.
Grisso, T., Steinberg, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., Scott, E., Graham, S.,…Schwartz, R. (2003). Juveniles’ competence to stand trial: A comparison of adolescents’ and adults’ capacities as trial defendants. Law and Human Behavior, 27(4), 333-363.
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Mayzer, R., Bradley, A. R., Rusinko, H., & Ertelt, T. W. (2009). Juvenile competency to stand trial in criminal court and brain function. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 20(6), 785-800. doi:10.1080/14789940903174089
Zehr, M. (2014). Assessing juveniles’ competence to stand trial. Web.