When it comes to a youth’s adjudicative competence, do age and maturity matter to judges?

In Graham v. Florida, Roper v. Simmons, and J.D.B v. North Carolina, the US Supreme Court recognized differences between adolescents and adults. For example, in J.D.B v. North Carolina, the Court wrote that “officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child’s age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old and neither is an adult.”

I frequently give talks on research related to adolescent development, decision-making, and psychosocial maturity, and how these findings can be used in forensic evaluations. Yet, I have often wondered, “How do trial level judges use this information?” The results of a 2012 published study, The Impact of Juveniles’ Ages and Levels of Psychosocial Maturity on Judges’ Opinions About Adjudicative Competence, by Cox and colleagues, begin to answer this question as it pertains to determining a youth’s competence.

Three hundred and forty-two judges participated in this research by reviewing a mock fitness report. The only details that varied in the reports were the youth’s age (ranging from 12 to17 years old) and level of maturity (mature or immature). Maturity was based on three aspects of psychosocial maturity (weight given to rewards v. risk; emphasis on short term v. long term risk/benefits; and susceptibility to peer and adult influence) and was demonstrated by the youth’s responses to questions related to competency. These indices or aspects of psychosocial maturity are commonplace in research and adolescent development literature. Cox and colleagues asked judges to rate the youth’s adjudicative competence in both juvenile and criminal court.

Here is a succinct version of the results. Judges conceptualize age and maturity as two distinct factors when making a decision regarding competence to stand trial. At first glance, the results indicate that judges rated younger juveniles as less competent than older juveniles. However, when one considers jurisdiction, the finding is very interesting. In juvenile court, a youth’s age did not affect the competence decision. In essence, in juvenile court, judges found 12-year-olds to be as competent as their 17-year-old counterparts. However, age seems to have mattered to these judges if the case was in criminal court. In that case, the judges found younger youth to be less competent. On the other hand, a youth’s level of maturity affected the judge’s determination of competency regardless of jurisdiction; in both juvenile and criminal court, those identified as being immature were found to be less competent.

Unfortunately, the researchers did not ask the judges if their jurisdiction’s statute explicitly says that maturity is a factor to be considered in rendering a competency decision. Despite this shortcoming, I find these results encouraging in that they seem to indicate that judges appreciate what has been empirically demonstrated: psychosocial maturity is a developmental phenomenon and most adolescents are not as mature as adults.

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