Many Kids Called Unfit for Adult Trial: Those under 15 often blind to the long-term results of their choices, a study says.
By Greg Krikorian
Published: March 3, 2003 in the Sacramento Bee
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 those of mentally ill adults judged not competent to stand trial. And in examining 1,400 males and females in four jurisdictions, researchers concluded that age and intelligence—not gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic factors or even prior run-ins with 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 whether any 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.” 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...