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Archie Ingersoll, Forum Communications Co., Published January 31 2010

UND study examines juveniles in adult court

After testing more than 70 adolescents in the Grand Forks County juvenile court system, UND researchers have concluded that courts nationwide should take steps to ensure that juveniles being tried as adults are mentally fit.

The study’s findings suggest that court officials should consider the results of competency and psychological tests in determining if juveniles, whose brains are still developing, understand the consequences of certain legal decisions, such as choosing between going to trial or accepting a plea deal, said Mariah Laver, a psychology graduate student who helped run the study.

Roughly 200,000 juvenile cases go through adult criminal courts in the U.S. each year, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice. Laver said none of the study participants, whose offenses ranged from skipping school to assault, was tried as an adult but that the group represents a population similar to those who are.

To attract participants, ages 12 to 17, researchers posted ads in the Herald and fliers at the juvenile court offices. Participants, who were each compensated with a $100 gift card to one of several local stores, underwent five hours of assessments that examined their social skills, verbal comprehension, processing speed, attention span, memory and reasoning. They were also tested specifically on their grasp of legal concepts and their competency to stand trial, which includes the ability to understand the charges against them and the court process.

“We kind of found what we expected to find which was, you know, better reasoning and better understanding of court proceedings was associated with higher intelligence levels,” Laver said.

Unruly vs. delinquent

Participants were put in two categories: unruly juveniles who were accused of offenses dependent on age, such as drinking, smoking or truancy; and delinquents who were accused of crimes not dependent on age, such as theft or assault.

Laver said that, on average, unruly juveniles fell into the normal range on psychological assessments, while delinquents showed deficits in attention span, planning, reasoning and problem solving. She said the unruly kids were also found to be more anxious.

As a caveat, she pointed out that the study had a significantly higher number of delinquents than unruly juveniles, which may have skewed the results.

The parents of participants filled out surveys on their children’s behavior, their relationships with their children and the stress of being a parent. Laver said parents of unruly juveniles were better at setting limits for their kids and had families who were more expressive and open.

The study, headed by Dr. April Bradley of UND, builds off earlier research by others. According to a paper published in 2000 by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization: “Recent studies on child development and competency question the extent to which young children are able to assist counsel or understand the trial process.” The paper goes on to outline disadvantages children face at various stages in the adult legal system.

Local courts

Magistrate David Vigeland, who handles roughly half the county’s juvenile court cases, said he routinely asks the children in his courtroom if they understand their rights and if they know why they’re in court and how process works. If there’s a question of whether a juvenile comprehends what’s going on, Vigeland said, judges can consult with parents or appoint an attorney for the child.

“I haven’t really seen any serious problems where someone didn’t appreciate why they were here,” he said. “Ordinarily, they’re able to make a rational decision how they want to proceed.”

Vigeland said juveniles in the county don’t undergo any sort of testing before they come to court. Although, more screening may be beneficial, he said.

“There’s a difference between adults and young people just in their development and in their … mental state,” he said. “So, I think we just have to be really careful, you know, to ordinarily make the distinction between juveniles and adults.”

Vigeland said he’s presided over serious juvenile matters, including rape and assault cases, but has not had one move into adult court.

In North Dakota, juveniles who are 14 and older and have committed a violent crime, such as murder or rape, are automatically tried in adult court, said Shawn Peterson, who oversees the county’s juvenile probation officers.

In his 13 years with the county, Peterson said, there hasn’t been an automatic transfer but did note the 2008 adult-court conviction of Sergei Carlson, a 16-year-old charged with killing his sister in Fargo. Peterson said cases of repeat offenders accused of crimes less serious than murder or rape can be transferred to adult court if they haven’t responded to attempts at rehabilitation in the juvenile system.

“I don’t think North Dakota courts are aggressive in trying to make people transfer,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

Peterson said local court officials consider the psychological needs and mental capacities of juvenile offenders in deciding how to deal with them.

“We’ve certainly had individuals in the courtroom who are lower functioning but are still determined … to know right from wrong,” he said.

Archie Ingersoll is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.