Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Statewide standards proposed for juvenile competency in court

By DAN SMALLWOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING – Juveniles in legal trouble face uncertainty in the courtroom, with legal standards that vary widely from county to county in determining whether they are competent to stand trial, says an Oakland County lawmaker.
Pending legislation would create a statewide standard for juvenile competency.
Among other things, it would establish the presumption that juveniles 10 or older are competent to stand trial.
Competency means the defendant has both the ability to understand what is going on and is capable of assisting in his or her defense, said Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, who introduced the bill in the House.
In addition to determining that children under 10 are too young to understand the nature of a courtroom trial, the bill would allow those older than 10 to challenge their competency and for a psychiatrist or other licensed professional to examine a defendant.
Lipton said, “We don’t currently have a statewide system in place for juveniles in the criminal justice system. This bill creates that standard for whether or not a minor is able to be adjudicated.”
The bill sets the age of 10 as the divider between presumed competency and incompetence as a compromise among the groups crafting the legislation, Lipton said.
Many prosecutors advocated a cut-off at a lower age, but mental health professionals pushed for a 12-year-old cutoff, she said.
Among the groups involved was the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency.
Michelle Weemhoff, the council’s senior policy associate, said the process included judges, prosecutors, mental health professionals, criminal defense attorneys and child advocacy groups.
“This has been a high priority of ours for a number of years,” Weemhoff said.
That meant reshaping the definition of competency for minors, separate from the rule for adults.
Studies show youth begin to understand the court system around ages 11-13. Below that, children have more difficulty understanding the adversarial nature of courts. If children don’t understand what’s going on, treating them as competent would be unconstitutional, she said.
Both Weemhoff and Lipton said there is no hard-and-fast line determining when an individual is capable of understanding the process, but one is necessary to make the law workable, both politically and in practice.
The issue of competency can still be raised by those older than 10, Weemhoff said.
If the issue is raised, the presiding judge would order the defendant tested for competency. Regardless of the test result, the judge would have the final say, she said.
The bill also addresses how to handle children who are deemed incompetent to proceed.
The cases of minors deemed incompetent and who aren’t seriously emotionally disturbed would be removed from the court system. Those who are seriously emotionally disturbed could be ordered to receive treatment in a community mental health system, Weemhoff said.
The Senate legislation is sponsored by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. The House bill’s sponsors include Reps. Leisa Liss, D-Warren; Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake; Harvey Santana, D-Detroit; Joan Bauer, D-Lansing; Hugh Crawford, R-Novi; and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. The bills are pending in the House and Senate Judiciary committees.

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