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Competency of kids in the courtroom

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

What comes to mind when you think about the juvenile court system? People might envision it as a less serious, more lenient version of the adult court system, due to juveniles’ age and level of maturity. In reality, juvenile courts look and function very similarly to adult criminal courts. Juvenile defendants are also subject to long court proceedings, long sentences, and consequences that can potentially last the rest of their lives.

One area there are differences between juvenile and adult courts is competency to stand trial decisions. Competency was defined in Dusky v. United States and states that, “the test must be whether [the defendant has sufficient present ability to consult with his attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and a rational as well as factual understanding of proceedings against him” (Reisner, 2018). In juveniles this level of competency has been challenged by different factors such as “immaturity... risk-taking, sensation-seeking, and capacities for self-regulation”(Grisso & Kavanaugh, 2016) which have led to a deeper look into how juveniles qualify for the Dusky standard of competency. Recommendations have been put in place such as the Miller factors which account for juvenile behaviors by stating that they are at a lower level capacity for making decisions and the amount of knowledge to help assist in their defense due to their age. These factors still need more development and analysis.

Setting a standard for competency decisions, particularly juvenile competency to stand trial (JCST), is difficult – policymakers have to balance having fairness and discretion within a particular case with having consistency and fairness within the system. Larson and Grisso (2011) developed a guide for lawmakers which is informed by insight from a variety of experts (e.g., judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors). Larson and Grisso aimed to give states an idea of the key problems they should consider when creating or revising statutes on JCST.

Panza, Deutsh, and Hamann (2020) investigated existing JCST statutes in 37 states in Statutes governing juvenile competency to stand trial proceedings. Panza and colleagues (2020) detail the degree to which important aspects of competency proceedings are covered by the statutes while also providing a look at how extensively each state covers the issues. Results of this study indicate that current laws address many issues (e.g., allowing for judicial discretion in raising the issue of competence, noting a juvenile’s right to an attorney, and requiring qualified examiners for competency evaluations); however, most states did not use best practice recommendations made by Larson and Grisso (2011). Georgia, Ohio, and Oklahoma had the highest ranked policies (i.e., had the most components and followed the most best practice recommendations), while Alabama was the lowest ranked.

Most states attempt to address a wide range of legal issues in their JCST policies, however the results also indicate there is room for growth in all states (some more than others). Implementing evidenced-based best practices, such as those identified by Larson and Grisso (2011) would increase fair and equal treatment for youth in juvenile courts across the nation.

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