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BEYER MARTY Immaturity, Culpability, Competency in Juveniles

BEYER MARTY Immaturity, Culpability, Competency in Juveniles

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Published by: Francisco Estrada on Dec 05, 2011
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05/18/2012

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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
*
 
Marty Beyer
 
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.
 
 
 
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conducted at the request of lawyers on behalf of their clients over the last two years-butnonetheless provides valuable information about the effects of immaturity in juveniles charged withserious offenses.
Cognitive development
 Recent research indicates that substantial brain development occurs during adolescence, includingareas of the brain involved in integrating information and emotional control. Even late in their teens,young people can have immature thought processes.They don't anticipate. Adolescents often fail to plan or follow a plan, and get caught up inunanticipated events. They view as "accidental" consequences that adults would have foreseen.After an offense, they say, "It happened so fast, I couldn't think."Reacting to perceived threat. Fear interferes with the adolescent's ability to make choices. This isespecially true for children of color, females, and victims of physical or sexual abuse who have feltthreatened before. Self-protection is understandable even if the actual danger was minimal. It isimportant to view the threat through the young person's eyes.Minimizing danger. Typical juvenile risk-taking reduces the use of mature cognitive strategies. Asspontaneous thrill-seekers, adolescents seldom consider the worst possible outcomes. Difficulty inmanaging impulses is normal in teenagers and does not predict poor judgment or psychopathologywhen they become adults. Teenagers genuinely believe that what happens to others cannothappen to them, even when they are aware of facts that would argue differently.Having only one choice. In situations where adults see several choices, adolescents may see onlyone. This is especially true for those with learning disabilities or lower intelligence. Oftenadolescents feel cornered and can see no other way out. As a result, their actions show poor judgment and may violate their own moral values. This can even be true for intelligent juveniles.When things do not unfold as they imagined, because of their immaturity, they behave as if theyhave lost their script and are incapable of adapting another, more reasonable choice.No intent to use a weapon. A gun or knife was used in 16 of the 17 offenses. In nine cases, acodefendant carried or used the weapon; in all of these cases, the one who carried the weapon wasolder, larger, and/or the boyfriend of the young person evaluated. Seven said they had no idea thecompanion had or was going to use the weapon, and they could not understand why they wereconsidered responsible for the harm caused by the weapon. In none of the seven cases in whichthe young person was armed (five cases resulted in a death) did the juveniles envision using thegun or imagine an injured victim. Three of them had the gun for less than 24 hours prior to theoffense. One shot a victim with a parent's gun that the victim loaded against house rules. As ahunter, he was the only one of the seven who reported previously firing a gun. All seven said theycarried the weapon to scare others. Five were smaller than average and said they wanted to lookbigger. It is noteworthy that all of them stated the gun went "off," but did not believe at the time thatthey had pulled the trigger. They expressed surprise at hearing the loud explosion and/or feeling thekick of the gun. Several indicated that using the gun had been reflexive-an unthinking response tofear. It was only later that they comprehended that having a weapon was dangerous.
 
 
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Incapacitated by substance use. In 10 of the 17 cases the juveniles were drunk or high at the timeof the offense. In six cases daily substance abuse occurred for weeks before the offense, resultingin impaired judgment and activities with other substance abusers that, when sober, they viewed aswrong and immature.Not planning. None of the 17 offenders demonstrated adult planning. Four of the young people arebrain-damaged and digest information slowly, which resulted in being present during an offensewith consequences they could not anticipate. Eight drifted into the offense by following others. Theyintended to have fun and viewed the eventual outcome as accidental or a surprise. Lack of planningwas coupled with minimizing the possible danger. For example, a 13-year-old got in a stolen car; a17-year-old agreed to hire prostitutes with a friend. Asked what choices he had, another 17-year-old said: "To have walked home in the rain and not accepted a ride with [his codefendant]." But bythe time things turned serious, he saw no way out.Feeling threatened. In seven cases, the young person was afraid of the victim; others wereintimidated by their companions. The 11-year-old had been tortured by his victim for months in atragic family situation. A 17-year-old and two 16-year-olds were shot at by drug dealers who theyknew had killed before, and they borrowed guns to protect themselves. In three cases, their robberyvictim attacked them and the intoxicated young people (who were victims of childhood abuse)reacted in fear for their own lives. Understanding how a young person could react reflexively ashe/she abandons the original activity (such as a robbery) to avoid being harmed by the victimchallenges the application of adult intent to children.Not comprehending Miranda. Ten of the young people did not understand the words or theconcepts of the Miranda warning. For example, a 14-year-old was asked to explain "You have theright to remain silent." He answered: "Don't make noise." Asked to explain "Anything you say can beused against you," he said, "You better talk to the police or they're gonna beat you up." Asked toexplain "You are entitled to consult with an attorney," he said he did not know. When told it meanthe could call a lawyer, he said, "I never heard of a lawyer before. Now I know what it means to havea lawyer, but back then I wouldn't know a lawyer to call and you have to have money for a lawyer."Asked what would happen if the judge heard later that he would not talk to the police, heresponded, "If I hadn't told what I did, the judge would give me more years." He said, "I had neverbeen taken in by the police before. If I had known what they read me meant, I would not havetalked. But I knew I had done something wrong. The police said, 'Your clothes are over there, justtell me what happened and you can get dressed and get out of here.'" A 16- year-old had similarcomprehension problems. Asked to explain "You have the right to remain silent," he said, "Thepolice are telling you when not to talk. I never could see why they said 'right' in that." Asked toexplain "Anything you say can be used against you," he said, "That's on TV-but I've neverunderstood what it meant." Asked to explain "You are entitled to consult with an attorney," he saidhe did not remember anyone saying that to him and he did not know what it meant. When told itmeant he could call a lawyer, he said, "I didn't know what a lawyer was. In juvenile we didn't havelawyers. I had my caseworker to talk to the judge for me." Asked what would happen if the judgeheard later that he would not talk to the police, he responded, "The police would tell the judge I waslying. I would get in more trouble by saying I didn't do it. Then the judge would say I must have didit." A 17-year-old was asked to explain "You are entitled to consult with an attorney." He said itmeant he could get a lawyer to help him in court, but he did not understand why the detective toldhim about getting a lawyer then-like many young people, he had no idea that he could ask to have alawyer present before he responded to police questions. Despite their youth, most of these young

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