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During the 1990s, criminal court decisions that pertained to youths who had committed crimes changed in two ways. The first was that the frequency with which youths, at younger ages, were tried in adult criminal courts increased. The second was that penalties for youths in juvenile courts also increased. These changes switched the focus of deterring criminal activity from rehabilitation to punishment. It is estimated that in 2004 about 200,000 youths under 18 were tried as adults and, of those convicted of felony, 27% were sentenced to time in state prisons. In the state prison system, most youths served time for more than 72 months. This is cause for concern not only because the state prison system reportedly does not have age appropriate health education and counseling services for youth, but also because of the prevalence of youth with mental disorders who come before the court and are sentenced to verdicts that some believe are not appropriate to their needs. Even if a youth does not have a mental disorder, some maintain that from a developmental perspective, those in adolescence do not have the cognitive, emotional, and social maturity that they will have once they become adults.
There are currently four bills in Michigan’s legislature that will address the issue of juvenile competency to stand trial, i.e., Senate Bills 246 and 247, and House Bills 4555 and 4556. Supporters of these bills believe that their passage would help shift the focus of deterring criminal activity from punishment back to rehabilitation and would give juveniles, with mental disabilities, a better chance of receiving the care they need, instead of being punished inappropriately. The bills detail that a youth cannot proceed in a court hearing unless he or she is deemed competent. “Incompetent to proceed is defined based on age-appropriate norms as a lack of a reasonable degree of rational and factual understanding of the proceeding, or the inability to do one or more of the following:
A) Consult with and assist his/her attorney in preparing his/her defense.
B) Sufficiently understand the charges against him/her.
Those under the age of 10 would be automatically deemed incompetent to proceed in a court hearing, while those over the age of 10 would be deemed competent to proceed unless the issues of competency were raised by a party. The bills then describe how to proceed when the issue of competency is raised. The first step would be to order a competency evaluation by a qualified forensic mental health examiner. If the child were found to be incompetent to proceed for the foreseeable future, then the court would have to dismiss the charges against the juvenile and could determine the custody of the juvenile. Custody of the youth could be awarded to the legal guardian or to the Department of Human Services for appropriate rehabilitation. On the other hand, if the adolescent were found incompetent but would be restored to competency in the foreseeable future then one of the following would apply:
A) If the offense were a traffic offense or a non serious misdemeanor than the matter would be dismissed
B) If the offense were a serious misdemeanor the court could either dismiss the matter or suspend the proceedings
C) If the offense were a felony then the proceedings would have to be suspended.
What happens after suspension of the court hearing is further detailed in the bills for each specific instance.
Supporters of the legislation believe that the reform of juvenile trials bills would create a more efficient and appropriate way to deal with juvenile delinquents. They maintain that the legislation would change the current system from one of punishment to rehabilitation which would provide better life chances for many children. For more specific details about all proceeding check out the bills at: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/%28S%28qegqnfinafbzul45veq0e23b%29%29/mileg.aspx?page=Bills
Public Policy Intern
"MacArthur Juvenile Competence Study." Home Page. THE JOHN D. & CATHERINE T. MACARTHUR FOUNDATION. Web. 16 June 2011. <http://www.mac-adoldev-juvjustice.org/page23.html>.
Michigan Senate. SB246, 96th Legislature. (2011). Print
Lexcen, Frances J., Thomas Grisso, and Laurence Steinberg. "Juvenile Competence to Stand Trial." Children's Legal Rights Journal, 2004. Web. <http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals>