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Some Trials of Juveniles Questioned

Thousands who are prosecuted as adults may not be mentally capable of aiding in their own defense, researchers say.

March 03, 2003|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Thousands of juveniles tried as adults in the U.S. 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 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% 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 males and females in four jurisdictions, including Los Angeles, researchers concluded that age and intelligence -- not gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic factors or even prior 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 that co-funded 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 each year are tried as adults.

For the study, researchers tested 11- to 24-year-olds in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, 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 as to be found "seriously impaired" in understanding the judicial process and aiding their own defense. Similarly, it found those 14 and 15 were twice as likely to be "seriously impaired" in such awareness and reasoning.

"For example," the study says, "younger individuals were less likely to recognize the risks inherent in different choices and less likely to think about the long-term consequences of their choices," including confessing versus remaining silent during police questioning.

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.

Given the study's conclusion that large numbers of juveniles may be incompetent or barely competent to stand trial, Grisso and Steinberg said they hope lawmakers nationwide will examine the fairness of the existing juvenile justice system. "At the very least," Steinberg said, "states that permit the transfer of juveniles to adult court ought to ask the question: 'Does this make sense?' "

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