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July 10, 2011

Is it sound, just and wise to often question the competency of juvenile offenders?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting article in the New York Times headlined "Legal Tactic Raises Issues for Juveniles."  Here are excerpts:

Over the past 18 months, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of cases in San Francisco’s juvenile courts in which defense lawyers question whether minors are able to understand the legal process or assist in their own defense and therefore should not be subject to legal proceedings.

The surge in competency cases has created a range of new problems for San Francisco’s juvenile justice system. When lawyers express doubts about their clients’ competency, the court suspends proceedings while the minors are evaluated.  Meanwhile they are often locked up for months or released without adequate supervision or services....

The drastic increase in competency cases is attributable, in part, to three precedent-setting cases tried in Sacramento between 2005 and 2008. In the most important of those cases — known as Timothy J — a Sacramento public defender, Arthur Bowie, successfully argued that children could be found incompetent based merely on their level of developmental maturity. The finding allowed the question of competency to come into play even in the absence of mental health problems or developmental disabilities.

“Why do we say a child can’t have a drink at 10 because he’s not thinking it through, but he can walk into a courtroom and understand what’s going on?” Mr. Bowie said in an interview....

Some argue that the Timothy J case has made it easier for defense lawyers to get minors released and cases dismissed.  “I know people are using it as a litigation strategy, and that’s not a good thing,” said George Beckwith, a private lawyer who defends minors in San Francisco.  “I don’t believe it’s rampant but I do believe it exists.”...

Patrick Mahoney, a San Francisco Juvenile Court judge, said competency had become a national issue. “What is happening is not unique to San Francisco,” he said. “This issue is being raised in every jurisdiction where I’ve had the opportunity to speak with judges.”...

Mr. Beckwith handled a case last year that involved a 12-year-old boy who was arrested for robbery twice in seven months.  Both times the boy was released because of incompetence.  Despite a court-ordered treatment plan, Mr. Beckwith said, most of the remediation services never arrived.  When the boy was arrested a third time last December, the judge placed him in juvenile hall, where he has been for more than six months.

After seeing that the boy had not received adequate counseling while incarcerated, Mr. Beckwith said he would never question competency again.  “I don’t care if the client is standing there blubbering, because they lock them up, proceedings are suspended, and they don’t get services,” he said.  “You fight like hell to get your kid into some kind of a program but for the average kid it’s not going to happen.”

July 10, 2011 at 11:37 AM | Permalink


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The count in 123D must begin at biological adulthood, 14. No violent criminal, including all armed robbers, should make it to 18. If the defendant is incompetent, that makes him a far bigger threat to the public. Sentences should get aggravated, and the counts should move up faster. Incompetence means that the defendant is incapable of learning, of controlling self, or of responding to treatment.

It is ironic. The lawyer takes the most threatening people, the ones most in need of incapacitation, and gives them special treatment, immunities, and dispensations. Why? Such an individual is a mini natural disaster and will generate massive government sinecures. So the advocacy is in bad faith, to generate salaries. The lawyer should start to make disclosures abut this conflict of interest.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 10, 2011 12:27:05 PM

It would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the increase in competency hearings and the passage of laws allowing/mandating juveniles to be tried as adults. I suspect you would find one.

Part of the problem with competency is our binary approcah to it - the accused is either competent or not. In the case of juveniles especially this makes little sense - children may have very differing abilities to aid in their own defense and these abilities may change drastically over time.

I don't have a perfect answer to this issue, but I wonder in this post Booker/Blakely era if the degree of maturity shouldn't factor in to any sentence handed down.

Posted by: Joe Power | Jul 10, 2011 2:36:56 PM

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