April 13, 2010

California may expand juvenile competency law

In the landmark case of Milton Dusky, the U.S. Supreme Court held that in order to be criminally prosecuted a defendant must have a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings and a basic ability to consult with his or her attorney.

Some U.S. states have limited this due process protection to defendants who suffer from a mental illness or a developmental disability. This excludes children, who may lack rational understanding due to their natural immaturity. In the 2006 Washington state case of Swenson-Tucker, for example, an appellate court held that an 8-year-old boy was competent to stand trial despite severe deficits stemming from his age and immaturity.

In Florida, by contrast, juveniles have a statutory right to competence, and both age and developmental immaturity can be considered in deciding competence. (Florida Code, Section 985.223.)

If California Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes has his way, the Golden State will follow the Sunshine State and move into the forefront of juvenile justice trends. Assembly Bill 2212 would formalize the requirements for juvenile competency proceedings in the state, and specifically mandate consideration of developmental immaturity.

The proposed law (excerpted below) follows on the heels of a 2007 appellate case (see my blog post HERE) allowing immaturity as the basis of incompetency for an 11-year-old Sacramento boy accused of breaking into an elementary school and stealing candy bars. Two psychologists had evaluated Dante H. (2007 Cal. App. LEXIS 704) and concluded that he was not fit to stand trial.
AB 2212, as amended, Fuentes. Minors: mental competency.
The bill would require, upon declaration of a doubt as to the minor's competency, the court to order that the question of the minor's competence be determined in a hearing, as specified. The bill would require the court to appoint an expert in the field of juvenile adjudicative competency to evaluate whether the minor suffers from a mental disorder, developmental disability, or developmental immaturity and, if so, whether the condition impairs the minor's competency. The bill would require the Judicial Council to develop and adopt rules to implement these requirements. The bill would require that, if the minor is found to be incompetent by a preponderance of the evidence, all proceedings remain suspended to determine whether there is a substantial probability that the minor will attain that capacity in the foreseeable future or the court no longer retains jurisdiction. The period of time during which these proceedings would be suspended would not exceed 6 months.
A vote by the California Assembly's Public Safety Committee is scheduled for today.

Although the definition of developmental immaturity remains vague (see below text by Ivan Kruh and Thomas Grisso for an excellent discussion), most forensic psychologists who evaluate juveniles already consider their age and maturity, and this proposed law is a much-needed step toward requiring such practice.

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