Criminal Justice MagazineSummer 2000Vol. 15, Issue 2
Immaturity, Culpability & Competency in Juveniles: A Study of 17Cases
By Marty Beyer
Adolescents do not think or act like adults. In fact, scientific evidence now supports the contentionthat the juvenile brain is often incapable of adult reasoning because of its long maturation process.Immature thought processes, difficulty with comprehension, unstable identities, moral values thatare overshadowed by a sense of loyalty, or the effects of childhood trauma can make a youngperson incompetent to participate in his or her own defense. The effects of immaturity are evidentfrom the time the juvenile becomes involved in a crime, through the police interview, planning forhearings, and considering a plea. As defendants under the age of 18 are increasingly tried asadults-in a system that focuses more on the offense than the cognitive and emotional capacity ofthe accused-too little attention is paid to immaturity. Determining intent in juveniles requiresunderstanding adolescent development.A developmental perspective challenges many assumptions. For example, when children carryweapons they often do not anticipate harming anyone. Actions by an adolescent often do not showadult planning. And normal I.Q. and absence of mental illness do not equate with competency in a juvenile. Understanding where each adolescent is developmentally is necessary to clarify the effectof immaturity on his/her culpability and competency.What follows is an analysis of the developmental assessments of 17 juveniles conducted by theauthor to examine their maturity. They ranged in age from 11 to 17 at the time of their offenses.Some of the cases were in juvenile court, some in adult court, and some were evaluated inpreparation for a waiver/transfer hearing. Six were female, 11 were male. Ten were AfricanAmerican, four were Caucasian, and three were Hispanic. Their alleged offenses included ninehomicides (six felony murders in which a victim was killed in the course of a robbery), five armedrobberies, one case of sex abuse, one kidnapping, and one drive-by shooting. The 17 cases camefrom seven states and the District of Columbia. It was not a random sample-all interviews were
is a clinical psychologist and independent consultant in Washington, D.C. Her focus is on adolescent development: understanding how a youth's cognitive, moral, and identity development and trauma affect the commission of offenses, and designing developmentally sound dispositions. In addition to developmental assessments in individual cases, training, and improving services in juvenile facilities, she is also a consultant in statewide child welfare reform in Alabama and Oregon.