Are Youth 12 and Under Truly Competent to Proceed with Trial? Adjudicative Competency in Juveniles

Are Youth 12 and Under Truly Competent to Proceed with Trial? Adjudicative Competency in Juveniles

An evaluation of over 600 archived juvenile competency to proceed evaluations in Colorado reveals that examiners were more likely to opine incompetence in adolescents with an intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental disorder. Furthermore, youth aged 12 and younger were more likely to be opined incompetent and were rated as having a poorer prognosis for restoration compared to older adolescents. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in the Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice | 2021, Vol. 121, No. 1, 18-39

Five-Year Trends in Juvenile Adjudicative Competency Evaluations: One State’s Consideration of Developmental Immaturity, Age, and Psychopathology


Patricia C. McCormick, Colorado Mental Health Institute
Benjamin Thomas, Colorado Mental Health Institute
Stephanie Van Horn, Colorado Mental Health Institute
Rose Manguso, Colorado Mental Health Institute
Susan Oehler, Colorado Mental Health Institute


Juvenile adjudicative competency evaluations are on the rise, but basing decisions of competency on developmental factors remains highly debated. Most states do not provide explicit guidelines to address developmental factors within juvenile competency statutes despite substantial evidence demonstrating the impact of age and developmental immaturity on competence-related functional abilities. Examination of 649 archived juvenile competency to proceed evaluations in Colorado (from the years 2014–2018) furthered our understanding of the degree to which factors such as age, psychopathology, and developmental immaturity are considered by evaluators determining juvenile adjudicative competence. Based off of existing literature, we hypothesized that juveniles with neurodevelopmental disorders, intellectual disabilities, a younger age, and a lack of developmental maturity would have higher rates of incompetence. Results demonstrated that evaluators were more likely to opine incompetence in adolescents with an intellectual disability (84.8%) or neurodevelopmental disorder (71.8%). Youth aged 12 and younger were more likely to be opined incompetent (OR = 3.21) and were rated as having a poorer or more guarded prognosis for restoration (OR = 2.01) compared to older adolescents. Furthermore, developmental immaturity was cited most frequently in this younger age group. The identification of salient factors considered by evaluators may inform policy, practice, and adolescent-based competency restoration efforts.


Juvenile competence, developmental immaturity, adjudicative competence, competence to stand trial, juvenile defendants

Summary of the Research

“United States federal case law highlights the necessity of ensuring competency to stand trial as a component of due process rights for adult and juvenile defendants (Dusky v. United States, 1960; In re Gault, 1967)…In the U.S., a competent defendant is one who has a ‘sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding’ and ‘a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him’ (Dusky v. United States, 1960, p. 402). Many states require that deficiencies in these abilities are a result of a ‘mental disease or defect…Adjudicative competence…requires a defendant to evidence an appropriate degree of factual legal knowledge, an appreciation of their legal circumstance, and logical reasoning applied to the decision-making process…Concerns of adjudicative competence-related abilities are often raised when a defendant, especially a juvenile, faces serious charges (e.g., homicide) and therefore greater consequences…Along with differences in cognitive abilities, juveniles are likely to show immature judgment compared to adults, a critical component to decision-making…Despite developmentally-based differences between adolescents’ and adults’ ability to engage in rational decision-making that may impact their appreciation of a legal situation…juvenile standards for determining adjudicative competence have typically been a downward extension of adult statutes that ultimately fail to address concerns unique to adolescents…” (p.18-19).

“…The current study examined 649 juvenile competence to stand trial evaluations (from the years 2014-2018) to understand the degree to which age, developmental immaturity, and psychopathology, were considered by evaluators when forming their opinions on adjudicative competence…we hypothesized that opinions of adjudicative incompetence would be most frequent among younger defendants, youth deemed developmentally immature by the evaluator, and those with a neurodevelopmental diagnosis or intellectual disability…For individuals opined incompetent to proceed, we also examined offense severity, demographic variables, and whether the prognoses for achieving competency in the foreseeable future differed by various factors…” (p.19-25).

“…Our data indicated that, even prior to the statutory changes that specifically allowed for a consideration of developmental immaturity, a substantial portion of evaluators included this factor. As expected, and consistent with relevant literature, concerns of developmental immaturity were raised most among younger defendants…Youth aged 12 or younger were opined ITP [incompetent to stand trial] significantly more than any other age group, where 82.6% of this subgroup were deemed ITP. Additionally, concerns of developmental immaturity were more likely to be considered by evaluators for youth aged 12 years and younger compared to older adolescents…” (p. 33).

“In the 649 cases examined, evaluators opined juveniles to be incompetent to proceed to trial in over half of all instances (64.8%) with a diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental disorder (e.g., ADHD, autism spectrum disorder) being the most prevalent mental illness cited in the current sample (59%). The results from this study were consistent with our hypotheses and the extant literature examining trends in juvenile competency…The findings in the current study were inconsistent with past findings that a majority of juveniles found incompetent did not meet criteria for a mental disorder…” (p.35).

Translating Research into Practice

“…evaluators were also more likely to consider juveniles 12 and under to be poor candidates for restoration within the foreseeable future…remediation efforts in this subgroup of juveniles were regarded as likely to fail, not because of deficiencies in programming, but simply because the key remedy for developmental immaturity (sufficient passage of time) cannot be achieved in that time frame. These findings raise important questions that may inform future policy and statutory changes. For example, it may be prudent to establish a minimum age for trying juvenile offenders or an age-based presumption of incompetence if a substantial percentage of juveniles under the age of 12 are opined too developmentally immature to be competent to proceed and are likely to be poor candidates for restoration in the foreseeable future” (p. 34).

“…These findings indicate that the issue of considering age and developmental immaturity is pervasive across mental health experts assessing juvenile adjudicative competency within the state. Results of this study contribute to the mounting data that these factors are relevant to assessing adjudicat[ive] competence and may inform evaluator practice and juvenile-based competency restoration efforts. It is hoped that this growing body of research serves as an impetus to address the developmental appropriateness of states’ juvenile competency to proceed statutes” (p.37).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Research has demonstrated several ways in which both age and developmental immaturity may impact adjudicative competency-related abilities.

Developmentally immature and younger defendants are more likely to misperceive risk and feel unthreatened by potential consequences, thus interfering with their appreciation of the gravity of their criminal charges…Furthermore, younger defendants tend to demonstrate a developmentally appropriate sitting through lengthy court-related meetings or hearings. Developmentally immature and younger youth may struggle to rationally weigh the risks and benefits of accepting a plea bargain…Additionally, developmental processes make adolescents more likely to acquiesce to authority figures and more susceptible to peer influence, potentially increasing the likelihood of confessing and possibly impacting the decision to testify against a codefendant…” (p.22-23).

“…37 states have expressly addressed issues of juvenile competence to stand trial within juvenile-specific statutes as of 2020, while 10 states address the issue within their adult statutes…Additionally, four states have established a per se assumption of incompetency for juveniles (ages ranging from 12 to 14) and five states have developed an age-based presumption of incompetency (ages ranging from 10 to 14…). Though the number of states addressing developmental immaturity in their statutes has increased in the past two decades, a majority of state statutes have yet to address the issue of developmental differences or age-based concerns in juvenile adjudicative competency matters…” (p.35).

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Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin is a clinical psychology doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.

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