Research from Aaron Kivisto, clinical psychology program graduate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and current post-doctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital; Todd Moore, assistant professor of psychology at UT; and Bruce Seidner, clinical assistant professor in the psychology clinic at UT, found that unlike adults, most children and adolescents who are found incompetent to stand trial are not psychotic; rather, they have cognitive impairments. And, they are often too immature to understand the magnitude of the situation.
In a study recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, Kivisto, Moore and Seidner found that a major contributor to maturity is "future orientation," or the ability of young people to take long-range consequences into account when making decisions. The authors theorize one reason young people are ill-equipped to be defendants in court is because they are present-focused and lack a more mature perspective on the future.
"When we're teenagers, we're focused on short-term consequences," said Kivisto. "Teens think about what might happen later today if they do something. Because courts can impose consequences that can affect someone's life for years, it appears that adolescents approach these longer-term and very serious implications blindly."
Testing the influence of future orientation on competency to stand trial, the researchers found that the well-established relationship between age and competency is partly explained by a child's degree of future orientation.
The researchers also found that competency is particularly "fragile" in immature children. In other words, children require less of a deficiency in their cognitive ability to have an impact on their competency in the courtroom than their adult, more mature peers.
For adolescents, the deficits can be much more subtle and easily undetected. The researchers hope their findings have an impact in the courtroom.
"Given the long-lasting consequences faced by adolescents in the courtroom, these findings suggest that forensic evaluators should give increased attention to the often neglected role of normal immaturity on adolescents' competence to stand trial and to appreciate these unique aspects of young defendants," said Kivisto.
Indeed, developmental maturity is a factor gaining greater attention from courts and legislatures. States such as California already require juvenile competency evaluators to assess developmental maturity.