Study questions competency of juveniles for trial as adults

Researchers say many are incapable of helping in their own defense

March 03, 2003|By Greg Krikorian | Greg Krikorian,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Thousands of juveniles tried as adults in the United States may be incompetent to stand trial because they are emotionally or intellectually unable to contribute to their own defense, according to a juvenile-justice study to be released today.

The study, directed by a University of Massachusetts professor, found that one-third of the 11- to 13-year-olds studied and 20 percent of those 14 or 15 years old had levels of reasoning and awareness comparable to mentally ill adults judged not competent to stand trial.

And in examining 1,400 boys and girls in four jurisdictions, researchers concluded that age and intelligence - not gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic factors or even previous run-ins with the law - were the most significant factors in determining a youth's ability to understand the judicial process.

"It is a violation of constitutional rights to be a defendant in a criminal proceeding when you are not competent to defend yourself," said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor and director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation research network, which helped fund the study.

"In all likelihood a large number of juveniles being tried as adults are not competent to stand trial," Steinberg said. While the study did not address individual cases or other factors to determine whether youths were wrongly convicted, Steinberg said, its findings did suggest that "thousands" of juveniles went to adult trial when they should not have because their ability to understand the proceedings was "seriously impaired."

Government statistics, researchers said, show that about 200,000 juveniles are tried as adults each year.

For the study, researchers tested 11- to 24-year-olds in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, north Florida, and northern and eastern Virginia - with half of those studied in juvenile detention and the other half living in the community. The research showed that the performance in reasoning and understanding for youths ages 16 and 17 did not differ from those at least 18 years of age.

But the study found that when compared with young adults, children ages 11 to 13 were more than three times as likely to be found "seriously impaired" in understanding the judicial process and aiding their own defense. Similarly, it found those 14 or 15 years old were twice as likely to be "seriously impaired" in such awareness and reasoning.

Study director Thomas Grisso, a clinical psychologist and psychiatry professor at the University of Massachusetts medical school, said the issues of age and maturity manifested themselves in ways well beyond the obvious. Even when young teens understand their immediate circumstances and the judicial proceedings, Grisso said, the research found "there are still questions about their ability to make decisions and grasp the long-range" consequences.

Greg Krikorian is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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