Adjudicative Competence of Youth

Although the early juvenile justice system did not require that adolescent defendants be able to understand and participate in their legal proceedings, courts have increasingly required that adolescent defendants, like adult criminal defendants, be competent to proceed to adjudication (competent to stand trial). This has raised a unique set of challenges for the courts and mental health clinicians. Research has indicated that young adolescents have high rates of deficits in competence-related legal capacities in comparison with adults. As described below, however, little is known about assessing and treating adjudicative incompetence in youth, and legal standards regarding youths’ adjudicative competence remain unclear.

Legal Standards for Juvenile Competence

Since the 1700s, the legal system has required that adult defendants tried in criminal courts be competent to proceed to adjudication. More specifically, the law requires that criminal defendants be able to understand the nature of the legal proceedings, appreciate the significance and possible consequences of these proceedings, communicate with their attorney, and reason about relevant legal decisions, such as how to plead. If defendants lack these capacities, they can be found incompetent, in which case their adjudication is typically suspended, and they are treated in an effort to restore their competence.

The early juvenile justice system, which was developed in Illinois in 1904, did not require that adolescent defendants be competent to proceed to adjudication. Because early juvenile justice was designed to be rehabilitative rather than punitive, it was not considered necessary that youth be able to understand and participate in their legal proceedings. However, during the 1990s, public concerns about youth violence rose to significant levels and drove a series of key legislative changes that allowed the transfer of adolescents to adult court to become easier and more common and for juveniles tried in juvenile court to be given harsher penalties.

Given the adult-like penalties that can now be given to youth, courts have increasingly required that adolescent defendants be competent to proceed to adjudication. At present, the specific nature of competence standards in juvenile courts remains unsettled. Although courts have generally required that adolescents have the same types of legal capacities as adults, some jurisdictions have held that lower levels of these capacities may suffice for adolescents in juvenile court.

Another issue that remains undetermined pertains to possible bases for findings of incompetence among adolescents. Although mental disorders and mental retardation are the most commonly recognized sources of incompetence, some adolescents may be incompetent owing to developmental immaturity rather than mental disorders or mental retardation. However, it is currently unclear whether jurisdictions will recognize developmental immaturity as a legitimate basis for a finding of incompetence.

Possible Sources of Adjudicative Incompetence in Youth

Legal deficits in youth may stem from very different sources. One possible cause of incompetence may be mental disorders. For instance, a young girl with a thought disorder may have a paranoid delusion that her attorney is conspiring against her and thus refuse to tell her attorney critical information regarding her case, a youth with symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may have difficulty attending to court proceedings and managing his courtroom behavior, and a young girl with a depressive disorder may be unmotivated to adequately defend herself due to feelings of worthlessness.

A second possible cause of incompetence is mental retardation or severe cognitive deficits. Research has found that youth who have cognitive deficits are much more likely than other youth to demonstrate deficits in legal capacities relevant to adjudication. In addition to mental disorders and cognitive deficits, however, adolescents may also have impaired legal capacities simply due to normal developmental immaturity. Evidence for maturity-related legal deficits is provided by the MacArthur Juvenile Adjudicative Competence study. In this important study, Thomas Grisso and his colleagues examined the legal capacities of 927 adolescents and 466 adults from detained and community sites. Results indicated that young adolescents were more likely to demonstrate legal impairments than adults. Specifically, one third of youth aged 11 to 13 and one fifth of youth aged 14 to 15 demonstrated significant impairments in the understanding of legal proceedings and/or legal reasoning. In addition, young adolescents performed in a manner that suggested that they are less likely to recognize the risks and long-term consequences of legal judgments than older individuals.

While it is often assumed that experience with the legal system will mitigate any limitations in youths’ legal capacities, this is not necessarily the case. Considerable research has indicated that simply having court experience does not equate to having adequate legal capacities.

The high rates of legal deficits in young adolescents may, in part, stem from the fact that youths’ cognitive capacities may not yet have reached their adult potential. In addition, experts, including Elizabeth Scott, Lawrence Steinberg, and colleagues, have emphasized that psychosocial immaturity may also contribute to age-related impairments in competence-related legal capacities. Specifically, developmental psychology provides evidence that adolescents are more likely than adults to have difficulties in recognizing the consequences of their decisions, are more likely to be influenced by peers, and tend to act in an impulsive manner.

The research findings on youths’ legal capacities raise a number of important issues for the legal system. While the legal system automatically assumes that adolescents, including young adolescents, are competent to stand trial unless proven otherwise, the high rate of legal impairments among young adolescents questions the appropriateness of this presumption. In addition, given that a high rate of young adolescents could show limited legal capacities, there is a considerable need for methods to assess adolescents who may be incompetent to proceed to adjudication and for strategies to remediate youths who are found incompetent.

Assessment of Youths’ Adjudicative Competence

When an attorney or judge has concerns about a particular youth’s adjudicative competence, the court will order that the youth be evaluated by a mental health professional to assess the youth’s competence. These assessments differ considerably from general mental health evaluations in that they focus on youths’ competence-related capacities as opposed to general mental health issues. In addition, juvenile competence assessments require procedures that differ somewhat from adult competence assessments. Specifically, juvenile evaluations should carefully assess youths’ developmental maturity and consider contextual issues that are unique to adolescents, including possible caretaker involvement in legal proceedings.

As described by the leading expert in this field, Thomas Grisso, a key goal of juvenile competence evaluations is to describe the youths’ functional legal capacities. In particular, competence reports should describe youths’ understanding of important aspects of legal proceedings (e.g., understanding of the role of judges and attorneys), appreciation of the significance of legal proceedings (e.g., appreciation of the possible penalties that could be applied to them if found guilty), ability to communicate with counsel (e.g., the ability to disclose important information about their cases to their attorneys), and legal reasoning (e.g., the ability to weigh various plea options).

In evaluating youths’ functional legal abilities, evaluators should consider how a specific youth’s legal capacities match with the nature of his or her particular case. A finding of incompetence occurs when there is a significant mismatch between a particular defendant’s legal capacities and the demands created by his or her particular case. For instance, if a youth who is charged with aggravated assault is going to be tried in adult court, where he or she will likely have to testify for lengthy periods of time, it will be important that the youth have the capacity to testify relevantly, an understanding of the transfer process, and an appreciation of the types of penalties that may be given to him or her in adult court. In contrast, if this youth’s case was being handled in juvenile court and he or she had decided to accept a plea bargain instead of standing trial, it would not be as critical that he or she have a high level of testifying capacities, but it would be essential that he or she have a good under-standing of plea bargains.

If a youth is found to have significant legal deficits in one or more the relevant areas (e.g., understanding, appreciation, communication with counsel, reasoning), the evaluator should attempt to provide information on possible causes of these legal deficits, such as whether the legal deficits appear to stem from a particular mental disorder and/or developmental immaturity. In addition, if a youth is found to have legal deficits, evaluators should offer opinions and recommendations regarding possible interventions to address these legal deficits.

Until recently, there have been no tools specifically for assessing youths’ legal capacities. However, in 2005, Grisso developed a guide, called the Juvenile Adjudicative Competency Interview, to help structure assessments of youths’ competence. The Juvenile Adjudicative Competency Interview is not currently a standardized instrument but instead functions as a guide to help ensure that clinicians consider key developmental and legal issues in assessing juveniles’ adjudicative competence.

While some instruments that have been developed for adult defendants may have relevance to juvenile competence evaluations, caution is needed in applying adult instruments to youth; instruments that have been found to be reliable and valid with adults cannot be assumed to be reliable and valid with adolescents. Research has provided some preliminary support for the psychometric properties of the Fitness Interview Test-Revised when used with adolescents. Also, a number of evaluators report using the Competence Assessment for Standing Trial for Defendants with Mental Retardation with adolescent defendants, because its format is thought to be easier for adolescents to understand. However, research has yet to examine the psychometric properties of this tool with adolescent defendants.

Interventions for Remediating Incompetent Youth

After a competence evaluation has been conducted, the court must decide whether to find a youth incompetent. If a youth is found incompetent and is believed to be remediable, the trial will be suspended until he or she is considered to be competent. If the youth is considered to be unremediable, then his or her charges may be dropped and/or he or she may be referred to alternative services, such as inpatient mental health treatment.

At the present time, very little is known about how to remediate youth who are found incompetent to stand trial. However, there is reason to believe that this process may be challenging, especially when youth are found incompetent on the basis of mental retardation and/or developmental immaturity. Some research, using data from the MacArthur Juvenile Adjudicative Competence study, has found that young adolescents may be less likely than older individuals to benefit from brief teaching interventions targeted at improving their under-standing of basic legal concepts, such as the role of judges and attorneys. It may be even more difficult to teach youth how to apply legal concepts to their own cases and how to reason about legal decisions. Given the high rates of legal deficits among young adolescents and the increasing numbers of adolescents who are being found incompetent, research in this area is greatly needed.

See also:


  1. Grisso, T. (2005). Evaluating juveniles’ adjudicative competence: A guide for clinical practice. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
  2. Grisso, T., Steinberg, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., Scott, E., Graham, S., et al. (2003). Juveniles’ competence to stand trial: A comparison of adolescents’ and adults’ capacities as trial defendants. Law and Human Behavior, 27, 333-363.
  3. Scott, E. S., Reppucci, N. D., & Woolard, J. L. (1995). Evaluating adolescent decision making in legal contexts. Law and Human Behavior, 19, 221-244.
  4. Viljoen, J. L., & Grisso, T. (in press). Prospects for remediating juveniles’ adjudicative incompetence. Psychology, Public Policy, and the Law.