Adolescents' adjudicative competence (competence to stand trial and make competent decisions as defendants) has been one of the major topics of study for the Network. Our concern about the need to investigate youths' capacities as trial defendants arose from a reform in juvenile law during the early 1990s. During that time, almost all states changed their laws pertaining to youthful offenders in two ways. They increased the frequency with which youths, at increasingly younger ages, were to be tried in adult criminal court, and penalties for youths in juvenile court were increased as well. In effect, the nation's approach to trying and sentencing youths placed them in much the same role as adults who were tried for similar charges.
As this reform advanced, attorneys and juvenile advocates became increasingly concerned about the fairness of the adjudicative process for youths. Our legal system has long required that defendants be competent to stand trial--that is, to understand the trial process, assist counsel in their defense, and make important decisions about the waiver of constitutional rights (such as pleading) that can only be made by the defendant. Traditionally, youths' adjudications were handled in juvenile courts that had a rehabilitative objective, for which reason the issue of their competence to mount a defense was rarely raised. Under the new laws, however, youths as young as 11 or 12 have been required to participate in trials that often require decisions of enormous import by defendants, including pleading guilty to sentences that would extend well into their adult years and in some cases for the rest of their lives.
There are several reasons to believe that youths are in special jeopardy due to diminished competence to assist in their defense. From a developmental perspective, many youths do not have the cognitive, emotional, and social maturity that they will have when they are adults. Moreover, considerable evidence has indicated higher prevalence of mental disorders among youths who come before the courts than among youths in general, including developmental delays, mental illnesses, and mental retardation. Finally, ethnic minority and economically disadvantaged youths are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system.
The problems raised by youths' potential incapacities as trial defendants are important for several reasons. Fundamental fairness requires that youths not be placed in greater jeopardy at their trials than adult defendants. Moreover, the likelihood of errors in determining youths' capacities is greater than for adults because developmental deficits have not traditionally been a legal concern regarding competence to stand trial (given that competence issues originated in the context of adult criminal trials). Attorneys and judges have had virtually no guidance in recognizing or addressing issues of youths' capacities as trial defendants, especially since legislators and policy-makers themselves have not yet addressed the issues in most states.
In 1997, the Network began planning a study that would provide the necessary information to guide U.S. law and policy toward a more rational, developmentally-sensitive perspective on youths' adjudicative competence. The study was funded by the Network, with additional support from the Open Society Institute, one of the Soros Foundations. The questions we posed were these:
- Compared to adults in the criminal justice system, do youths in the juvenile justice system more often manifest deficits in abilities related to adjudicative competence?
- If so, on what abilities are these differences most apparent, and how are those abilities related to development?
- If those differences exist, what types of youths are at greatest risk of adjudicative incompetence due to developmental immaturity? Might developmental immaturity interact with mental disorders to create increased risks of deficits in abilities related to adjudicative incompetence? Is there an age below which incompetence to stand trial should be presumed?